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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman

Ancient craft amid by village cultural heritage

Handicrafts in the red river Delta: history repeating itself

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1Vietnam is unusual in that its industries are not entirely concentrated in the cities. Although village dwellers of the Red River Delta give precedence to growing rice, they began very early on to integrate industry and handicrafts into the rural economy. During the feudal era, such activities were practised in specialised villages rather than in cities; the latter stood as symbols of power and were regarded as religious and political centres, as well as business hubs for trade with the outside world.

2Until the country’s independence, craft villages had a marginal status compared with other forms of production. Since the Renewal, or Đổi Mới, village craftsmanship has been revived by market liberalisation, the resurgence of individual business and the implementation of government policies promoting the development of non-agricultural rural activities. After decades of disparagement, a rich architectural and cultural heritage is now being restored. Festivals and rituals in honour of guardian (tutelary) spirits and patron saints of crafts have been rehabilitated. This highlights the vitality of the intangible heritage of villages, which for centuries acted as a cohesive force between city and countryside.


Ancient history: the importance of ties with China

The Red River Upper Delta as cradle of Vietnamese handicrafts

3Craftsmanship appeared long before Vietnamese society began to organise itself into villages; thereafter, handicrafts became a structural and integral part of Vietnamese economy and identity (Trýõng Minh Hằng, 2006).

4By the time of the Chinese conquest in the first century A.D., handicrafts in the Red River Delta had already reached a relatively high technical level. Iron and bronze casting and metalwork techniques were known, while pottery – which had flourished during previous centuries – became increasingly sophisticated with the use of enamel techniques. Weaving and wickerwork were the most successful crafts. Cotton, silk, bamboo and rattan baskets from the Red River Delta were renowned for their properties. Paper manufacturing began in the 3rd century A.D., using techniques imported from China. Later, thanks to close ties with China once more, silver and gold chasing techniques were refined in order to produce luxury goods for the Court and local officials. Lacquer had been known since the 4th century B.C. (lacquered objects and lacquering tools have been found in tombs dating from this period). At the beginning of the first millennium A.D., Vietnamese craftsmanship was highly developed (Nguyễn Khắc Viện, 1993).

5Craft villages began to thrive as the Chinese conquest was ending. After Emperor Lý Thái Tổ moved the Imperial Court from Hoa Lý to Thãng Long on the banks of the Red River in 1010, several villages began developing craft activities. They were granted monopolies and dedicated themselves fully to the manufacture of religious and luxury handicrafts for the Imperial Court and the affluent classes in Vietnam and other Asian countries (such as China and Japan); these goods were also used for religious worship (e.g. silk, ceramics, jewellery, embroidery, paper for royal edicts, furniture, objects inlaid with mother-of-pearl, statuary, etc.).

6A guild of artisans specialising in the construction of lavish dwellings for the Imperial Court (including carpenters, as well as metal, stone, painting and lacquer specialists) was at the service of the state.

  • 1 Villages and other sites of interest in bold type indicate places to be visited on the itineraries (...)
  • 2 Names in brackets with a date refer to quoted sources given in the bibliography at the back of the (...)

7"The artisans of Chàng Sõn and Nhân Hiền, who specialised in wood and ivory carving, have left their stamp on great work, such as the Temple of Literature, the communal houses of Đình Bảng1, Tây Ðằng, Chu Quyến and Týõng Phiêu, and the pagodas of Tây Phýõng and Thầy. Traders and artisans were organised into guilds, which were heavily taxed by the monarchy" (Papin P., 20012).

  • 3 A geographical grouping of villages specialising in the same sector, whose businesses are intercon (...)

8The textile industry was concentrated within a cluster3 of a dozen villages near the town of Hà Ðông. A buoyant, high quality silk industry fed Hà Nội’s large consumption and redistribution market (Gourou P., 1936.) Although intended to supply a sizeable domestic market, some of these products – such as Tonkin cotton and silk cloth – became well known abroad. Ceramics were sold on the Japanese and Chinese markets, thanks to their reputation for quality.

9Craft products were also used in the daily life of the villages, which were largely geared towards home consumption: cotton cloth, ceramics, agricultural and hydraulic tools, rattan and bamboo goods, sedge mats, processed foodstuffs, (e.g. from flour mills, oil mills and distilleries) and industrial products (metalwork, milled paper). A wide range of items could be manufactured, owing to the availability of a large variety of botanical and animal raw materials.

10Each village produced infinite variations on the one item it specialised in. Wickerwork is the best example of this diversity. There are eight varieties of bamboo, each with its specific characteristics, from which an endless variety of baskets can be made: baskets of all shapes and sizes, with a tighter or looser weave, baskets for cooking, for transporting the harvest or soil, for irrigation, for drying the harvested crops, for preserving goods or breeding silkworms; watertight baskets to carry water (Gourou P., 1936). An important hat-and coat-making industry used nón (latania palm) leaves as its raw materials.

11In the 18th century, the most famous villages around Hà Nội were La Khê, La Cả and La Nội (currently part of Hà Tây Province), which specialised in silk weaving, Vạn Phúc (also currently part of Hà Tây), specialised in brocade weaving, and Phùng Xá (Sõn Tây Province), specialised in silk for manufacturing turbans.

12The villages of Hýõng Canh, Thổ Hà and Phù Lãng (Kinh Bắc) and Ðinh Xá (Sõn Nam) specialised in pottery; Đại Bái, Ðề Cầu and Ðông Mai (Kinh Bắc) in bronze and copper tincoating and casting; Ðào Xá village (Hải Dýõng) made paper fans. Professional weavers lived in Dan Loan village (Hải Dýõng), goldsmiths in the villages of Ðồng Xâm (Thái Bình) and Ðịnh Công (Sõn Nam), wood turners in Nhị Khê village (Sõn Nam), painters in Hà Vĩ and Bình Vọng (Sõn Nam), leather workers in Trúc Lâm, Phong Lâm and Vãn Lâm villages (Hải Dýõng), and embroiderers in the village of Quất Động (Sõn Nam) (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002.)

Exchange of goods and know-how with China

13The origins of crafts are sometimes lost in the mists of time. However, some have been transcribed in genealogical registers or on parallel sentences jealously guarded within the walls of nhà thờ họ – the ancestors’house where the illustrious lineages of the village are worshipped. Unfortunately, recent wars have severely damaged the communal memory of villages and these registers have often vanished or been destroyed.

  • 4 The founding legends of some of these crafts are described in detail in the featured itineraries.

14Founding myths may or may not have some factual basis, but numerous written documents affirm the Chinese origins of many of these crafts. Those involving complex techniques, such as ceramics, embroidery, jewellery, metal beating and silk weaving, may have been introduced by mandarins, craft ancestors, who had spent long periods as ambassadors in China. Diplomatic missions stimulated trade and enabled knowledge and technical expertise to be collected (Papin P., 2001)4. Other crafts may have been introduced to villages by famous artisans; later on, ‘post-ancestors’ – either mandarins or monks who had travelled widely – may have introduced new techniques (Đại Bái, Itinerary no3 p. 155, and Chuôn Ngọ / Cửu Lâu / Hàng Khay, Itinerary no6 p. 233) and improved the quality of the craft. Such forms of know-how, taught either by outsiders or by prominent members of the village, were received as tokens of gratitude by the villagers of this overpopulated plain, whom rice cultivation often left hungry. Religious edifices were erected in honour of these benefactors, who became objects of worship and are still celebrated at festivals to this day.

15Vietnam was under Chinese domination for over a thousand years – from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. Over the course of the following centuries, the Vietnamese feudal state was obliged to pay a tribute in the form of handicrafts to demonstrate its allegiance to the former Chinese colonisers. The feudal state held sway over its subjects, who paid numerous taxes, worked as forced labour and were conscripted into the army. Craftspeople were heavily taxed and, under the công týõng system – effectively a system of statutory labour or corvée – were sometimes forced to leave their village to work in state factories (e.g. shipyards, weapons factories, the mint) or, during the city’s extension in the 16th and 17th century, on the construction of houses or palaces (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). Land tax was used to pay tribute to China:

“A list of products accepted in 1724 for the payment of land tax included alcohol, fine cotton fabric, ordinary cotton fabric, plain silk, Ỷ La silk, gauze, satin, various grades of paper, ordinary sedge mats, paper votive objects, etc” (Gourou P., 1936).

16In the 19th century, artisans who wished to be exempted from statutory labour or military service had to become members of a professional guild and pay taxes in kind, while producing goods according to the norms required by the state. La Khê had to pay an annual levy of 600 silk items; in Bát Tràng, each craftsman was liable to pay 300 quality tiles (Itinerary no2); the guilds of Yên Thái and Hồ Khẩu incurred taxes of several hundred sheets of paper of various grades (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002).

Craft activities based on specific commercial relations between cities and villages

The Quarter of the 36 Streets or 36 Guilds: the link between the trade town and craft villages

17Since their earliest beginnings, crafts of the Red River Delta have been integrated within longstanding networks connecting them to the capital, through the Quarter of the ‘36 Streets’ or ‘36 Guilds’, to areas where raw materials are extracted and to domestic and foreign markets – especially China.

18The Quarter of the 36 Streets in Hà Nội affords tourists a first glimpse of North Vietnam’s handicraft culture and its deeply localised roots. In the 17th century, this quarter was organised around individual streets, each specialising in one specific type of goods produced in craft villages situated in the Red River Delta or around West Lake, near the capital. There were in fact roughly one hundred streets – 36 was chosen as an auspicious number. Each street was named after the goods it sold: Sugar Street, Hemp Street, Cards Street, Dyers’ Street, Cup Street, Cotton Street, Chicken Street, Tray Street, Tin Street, Drum Street, Fan Street, Comb Street… (Papin P., 2001). Shopkeepers were sometimes themselves craftspeople. Many shrines to craft ancestors were built there.

19Each street was inhabited by artisans from one or more of the villages that practised the same craft: in the street of jewellers, Hàng Bạc, lived artisans from the village of Ðịnh Công (Thanh Trì District, Hà Nội Province), who specialised in silver jewellery, as well as others from Trâu Khê (Bình Giang, Hải Dýõng) and Ðồng Xâm (Thái Bình), who produced silver utensils. Hàng Đồng manufactured bronze and copper objects and also sold items from Đại Bái and Ngũ Xã villages.

20Several village areas known as phýờng were located around West Lake. Some grew vegetables (Nghi Tàm and Quảng Bá) or fruit to supply the Court with fresh produce; others (Yên Phụ) produced painted images or cast bronze (Ngũ Xã Peninsula on White Bamboo Lake, Hồ Trúc Bạch). The neighbourhoods situated on the west bank of West Lake were famous for weaving ordinary silk (Bái Ân), black silk (Võng Thị) and brocade (Trích Sài) (Papin P., 2001). Around West Lake, Nghi Tàm and Nghĩa Ðô and south of Hà Nội, Thanh Trì and Thuy Ai were well known for breeding silkworms.

21Other villages on the southern bank of West Lake and near Paper Bridge, such as Yên Thái, Hồ Khẩu and Nghĩa Ðô, earned their living in the flourishing paper industry. Yên Thái, also known as Býởi, originally specialised in ordinary paper and gradually diversified its production. Towards the end of the 16th century, these villages began to produce very high quality paper and sell it to the Imperial Court (Papin P., 2001). These activities developed near the lake because producing paper requires large amounts of water; in addition, proximity to Tô Lịch River, an important trading channel between the Red River, Hà Nội and today’s Hà Tây Province, was a distinct advantage.

22This trading system that connected the Imperial capital to villages of the Delta and closer suburbs triggered the countryside’s process of urbanisation and brought about Hà Nội’s economic boom. A network of markets could be found within a radius of a day’s walk from Hà Nội, where tradesmen who also worked in the capital regularly plied their wares (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). This system contributed to the growth of Hà Nội’s sphere of influence, which until then had been reined in by successive monarchs. The commercial integration of the countryside and of the country as a whole revolved around the Quarter of the 36 Streets. Its location at a junction of river routes – the Red River, Tô Lịch River and Kim Ngýu River (Hà Tây) – turned it into a centre for regional – and later international – trade (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). This integration was a two-way process and has lasted to this day:

“The countryside certainly fed the city, but commercial relations established very early on between the capital and villages of the Delta also brought money to the countryside: initially, when orders came in from the city and later on, when migrants reinvested the capital they had earned in the city in their home villages” (Papin P., 2001).

23More importantly, craftspeople and tradesmen who had set up shop in the ‘36 Streets’ maintained ties with their home villages, where they could make use of the plots of land that were distributed periodically (Papin P., 2001). They made regular donations towards the construction of temples and communal houses in their city neighbourhood in memory of their home village (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). Most of these social and religious buildings still stand today, though some of them have been converted for commercial or residential use.

24When the Royal Court moved to Huế in 1806, state craft workshops experienced a period of decline; meanwhile, slackening state control over the industry encouraged private trade and craftsmanship. At the onset of the 19th century, Hà Nội’s crafts and trade prospered, thanks to Chinese merchants, and exports to China soared (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). At the end of the 19th century, according to a report to the Court in Huế, “nine-tenths of silk cocoons produced in the village of La Khê were exported to China”. Chinese merchants were also involved in trading paper produced in the villages around West Lake: they would sell bark on credit and ask to be repaid with the finished product (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002).

Vietnamese cities as centres of power and trade

25Traditionally, cities in Vietnam were symbols and seats of power and were regarded as religious centres. They were military strongholds responsible for defending the integrity of the national territory and the place of residence of the celestial appointee – king or lord – or his representatives (Langlet Quach Thanh-Tâm, 1993). Mandarins, especially eunuchs, played an active role in local life when they retired to their home villages at the end of their career. In return, villagers would build stelae in their honour (Phạm Thị Thùy Vinh, 2003) (Phù Ninh, Itinerary no2 p. 133). Unlike China, where the elite were city-dwellers, Vietnam produced a class of mandarins, many of whom originated in the countryside and would return there to spend their final years. Similarly, some artisans went back to their home villages and invested there once they had acquired wealth in Hà Nội, either buying land or building a house for themselves. Rich craftspeople also made donations towards the construction of religious edifices in their home villages.

“Indeed, Vietnamese civilisation is deeply rural. It does not radiate from the city to the countryside; instead, its very foundations lie in the villages. Intellectual activity also revolves around scholars living in villages. The Confucian state was entrenched in the village and erudite culture embedded within popular culture” (Fourniau, C., 1991).

26The market supplying court and army officials was situated around the Thãng Long Citadel (the former name of Hà Nội) and along the banks of the river on which the city was built. Around West Lake were many markets trading goods from surrounding villages, including Býởi market, which specialised in selling paper. Another specialised market was held near Cầu Giấy. Hàng Ðào Street (Dyers’ Street) hosted a market specialised in silk products. A temple named Bạch Bố (White Cloth) was built at number 47 and artisans from La Cả and La Khê would come there to sell velvet, while those of Đại Mỗ sold various types of silk; brocades came in from Vạn Phúc and lĩnh from Býởi (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002).

27City markets were held at the various gates of Kẻ Chợ’s surrounding walls. There were eight large ones in the 18th century, excluding specialised markets such as the rice market, fish market or frog market. Small markets would take place in front of the Red River wharf; brine, salt and sugar were traded in the streets bearing their names (Hàng Mắm, Hàng Muối, Hàng Ðýờng), which are located near the river.

28Yet Confucian doctrine was focused on rural society and attributed little value to commerce, which held back the emergence of a merchant and industrial bourgeoisie. Merchants came last in the hierarchy of labour: “scholar, farmer, craftsman, merchant”.

Craft activities linked to rural market and communication hubs

29The creation and development of craft villages on a plain criss-crossed by several river routes stimulated the growth of village markets in Kinh Bắc, east of Hà Nội, and reinforced the culture of trade and networks. Large markets were held in the villages of Phù Lýu, Đình Bảng, Đồng Kỵ, Tráng Liệt and Phù Ninh in the 18th and 19th centuries. A stele erected in 1693 in Đoan Minh Pagoda in the village of Thổ Hà (Itinerary 1 b) reminds us that:

“Since the previous dynasty, our local village has had a wharf for its Buddhist market, which met 12 times a month to sell earthenware and ceramics. Traders piled up their stocks in mounds and wealth and goods were always in circulation. Each and every household had its own kiln to make tools in and every autumn there was a festival for celebration.”

30Similarly, the upper gate in Phù Lýu’s village, where Chợ Giàu market was held, read as follows:

Here is the place where one finds all goods and products of Ðông Ngàn District, the largest market in Bắc Ninh Province (Phạm Thị Thùy Vinh, 2003).

31At this time, Phù Lýu contained over 30 trading houses dealing in copper, tin, ceramics, silk cloth, sedge mats, sesame, cotton, ploughs, livestock and processed foodstuffs. Unlike local village markets, most of the goods available in Chợ Giàu were commodities produced for sale by households in specialised villages. Copper and bronze goods sold on the market came from Đại Bái through traders in Tráng Liệt; ceramics came from Thổ Hà, Phù Lãng and Bát Tràng; cloth originated from the weaving villages of Týõng Giang and Đình Bảng; buffaloes from traders in Đồng Kỵ; rice alcohol from Quan Ðo, Cấm Giàng and Vân, and ploughshares and other steel agricultural implements from Đa Hội and Đông Xuất (DiGregorio M., 2001).

32The people of Kinh Bắc were involved in trade between the Delta and the mountainous regions, as well as between the Delta and the capital Kẻ Chợ. The merchants of Tráng Liệt – a village close to Đồng Kỵ – would travel a long way to buy copper, which they would sell at village markets or in the capital (Phạm Thị Thùy Vinh, 2003).

33Specialised markets usually have connections with craft villages. Each village was named after the goods it specialised in (e.g. betel, rice, silk: Chợ Trầu, Chợ Gạo, Chợ Tõ Lụa, etc.). Thổ Hà had long since acquired a reputation for its pottery. In the 18th century, a market specialising in pottery took place up to twelve times a month in the courtyard of the village pagoda. The village of Bát Tràng, on the north bank of the Red River, had also been famous for its pottery and earthenware since the 15th century. Its pottery market took place twice a day on the banks of the river, where merchant junks would flock. The markets in the communes of Nội Ðồ (Yên Phong District) and Đại Bái were known respectively for their ironwork products (sewing needles, iron chains) and bronze foundries. Many craft villages found an outlet for their wares by setting up markets on their territory. However, none of these markets could claim to specialise in a single item (Nguyễn Đức Nghinh, 1993).

A plain that is subject to partial flooding during the monsoon

34The Red River Delta is a densely populated plain where intensive rice farming required a large workforce during peak periods, but left the population idle during the fallow season. In this context, handicrafts provided seasonal employment. According to Pierre Gourou, households in areas with biannual rice harvests needed 125 days of work per year on average in the 1930s. Such households considered craftmaking as a secondary activity besides agriculture. However, handicraft activities prevailed in villages where land was scarce, or those that had developed highly specialised activities requiring a high degree of training.

35In villages where flooding prevented a tenth-month harvest, crafts began to emerge as a way of providing work to an underemployed workforce (Gourou P., 1936). Thus, craft activities were widespread in the southern low-lying plains of Hà Ðông and Hà Nam Province, where there were large numbers of itinerant carpenters known as thợ mộc. Villages were located along navigable waterways and could import raw materials from the mid-highlands and highlands of the North – such as rattan, bamboo and canna (a tuber used to manufacture vermicelli). This partly explains the number of villages producing wickerwork and food products along the River Ðáy in Hà Tây.

The collectivist overhaul of the production system in craft villages

The role of the state in supporting certain activities

36Individual production was banned after 1954. Villagers were made to become members of agricultural or craft co-operatives to reinforce the country’s industrial potential. In 1963, they began to participate in the war effort by producing commodities both for the daily life of the domestic population and for the vast consumption markets of socialist countries and were integrated within the collectivist system (DiGregorio M., 1999). The handicrafts industry then experienced two contradictory trends: production was reduced in certain sectors as a result of the ban on individual production, while it increased via craft co-operatives in sectors under tight state control. Craft co-operatives were to fulfil several functions:

37• Enable provinces to become self-sufficient in agricultural and hydraulic machinery and tools in order to increase agricultural production and manufacture supplies for everyday life, such as paper, furniture, pottery, food products.

38• Produce commodities for Eastern European countries – the West was in the grip of the Cold War and therefore boycotted the new Communist state of Vietnam.

39It was no longer possible to practise craft and agriculture jointly, as had been the custom. Craftspeople lost their small plots of land upon becoming co-operative members. Some of them chose to produce handicrafts illegally, although obtaining supplies was especially difficult now that the state had a monopoly on the sale of raw materials via its co-operatives.

40The state would issue orders to the co-operatives. Quất Động co-operative (Cờ Đỏ or Red Flag), created in 1961 and originally specialised in embroidery, made flags and banners for the Ministry of Defence. In 1974, the main activity practised by the artisans of Dýõng Ổ became the manufacture of firecrackers (DiGregorio M. et al., 1999).

The role of co-operatives in disseminating and modernising handicraft techniques

41Luxury items, formerly used for payment of tribute to China and later to supply the wealthy middle classes, lost their market after the revolution. Production of luxury goods was rekindled when the Eastern European markets opened to cultural and decorative goods. Co-operatives were able to shake some of these activities out of their post-colonial apathy. Such was the case in Phù Lãng, where ceramics were falling into disuse, or Bát Tràng, which today has become one of the most famous craft villages in the region. Ceramics required large investments for kiln maintenance, which only a co-operative could afford.

42Wickerwork, woodcarving and wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl received substantial support from the state and the provinces. Co-operatives in the most renowned craft villages would provide training courses to farmers from the surrounding area: rattan weaving was taught in Phú Vinh (Itinerary no8), wood carving in Phù Khê and Thiết Ứng (Itinerary no1), embroidery in Quất Động (Itinerary no6), etc. This ensured that sufficient numbers of workers were available to fulfil orders from the vast Eastern European market. Master artisans were requisitioned by the state to train an army of new artisans. The state was responsible for taking orders and marketing raw materials and commodities. Know-how was either passed on through apprenticeship and training or transmitted from generation to generation within families.

43Rattan weaving originated in Phú Vinh and spread to all the villages of Phú Nghĩa Commune. Gradually, other communes in the area took an interest in this craft. People would come to work for two months as apprentices in the rattan workshops. Around 1970, the inhabitants of the communes of Trýờng Yên, Trung Hòa, Ðông Phýõng Yên and Ninh Sở (Thýờng Tín) invited famous craftspeople over from Phú Vinh to teach their craft.

44In the 1960s, the number of artisans grew rapidly, thanks to a few artist sculptors who provided training in cooperatives in the villages of Thiết Ứng, Phù Khê and Kim Thiều. At the end of the 1970s, these co-operatives numbered between 100 and 150 members, compared with a few dozen in the 1960s. A craftsperson’s income was several times that of a farmer.

45Hà Tây’s new lacquerware production centre Hạ Thái (Itinerary no5) succeeded in taking over from Bình Vọng, birthplace of the craft, after a co-operative was founded there in the 1960s. A Hà Nội fine arts teacher, himself from Hạ Thái, returned to his home village to help set up a co-operative with his brother. He organised training courses for a few dozen villagers and developed the craft. Farmers from the nearby village of Duyên Trýờng left agriculture and became co-operative members.

46However, due to disorganisation, mismanagement, lack of quality control and, more crucially, the low wages paid to co-operative members, the wealth of know-how passed on to farmers by master craftspeople failed to be profitably exploited. In the 1980s, 700 villagers worked at the lacquerware co-operative in Hạ Thái, yet it took six months to produce a single item. Goods were sometimes returned as substandard. Famous artisans were unable to make full use of their talent and creativity, as the co-operative could only duplicate models imposed by the state. Some villagers became co-operative members just to receive rice.

47Weaving co-operatives were set up to supply state shops. Weavers received looms wider than those traditionally used and sometimes worked at home. Some women tried to keep practising this craft illegally, but the state monopoly made it difficult to find yarn. When the Eastern European market collapsed, in the late 1980s, co-operatives shut down and artisans were left without an outlet for their wares.

Craft activities wiped out by co-operativism

48Co-operatives caused the decline of a number of crafts. Cultural and decorative goods as well as goods for use in everyday life were affected. Thổ Hà (high quality ceramics), La Khê (luxury silk) and mid-range textiles are prime examples. For centuries, Thổ Hà, which specialised in the manufacture of ceramics for cultural, religious and domestic use, had earned its reputation from its highly sophisticated funeral urns (Itinerary no1 bis). A co-operative was set up there in the collectivist period and dissolved in the early 1990s. It had about 500 members in total and was located away from the village. Production was carried out in accordance with government plans and clients’taste and mainly consisted in large items of pottery for use in everyday life. Co-operative members were inadequately paid in rice and neglected the quality of their work. The state was responsible for marketing and organising production and could no longer subsidise losses. The village ceased producing ceramics. Most of the talented craftspeople have since died and their skills have disappeared with them. Another activity emerged in its stead: the manufacture of bánh đa, made from rice.

49Since 2002, a family of artisans has attempted to revive the craft – mainly quality funeral urns – and founded a new private co-operative with help from the Ministry of Culture, with mixed results.

50La Khê (Itinerary no4) used to specialise in manufacturing “the” silk, a very light, transparent and flowery fabric worn by the Hanoian aristocracy and used for payment of tribute to China. In the colonial era, there were more master craftspeople in La Khê than in Vạn Phúc, yet today silk production has almost vanished from the former. During the collectivist period, a crafts section was set up within the agricultural co-operative and family workshops stopped weaving silk. After the co-operative shut down, villagers moved on to other activities. According to one of the last great artisans in La Khê, multi-activity spelled the end of the craft, as it restricted the possibilities of developing silk weaving, which requires heavy investment in terms of machines, technical improvements and training. The lack of a market finally killed off what used to be one of the most famous villages in the silk cluster.

51In order to resurrect the age-old craft of this prestigious village, a craft co-operative was founded in 2005 by the People’s Committee, the agricultural co-operative and with the help of talented 80-year-old craftsman and former deputy chief of the defunct co-operative, Mr. Nguyễn Công Toàn. The co-operative aspires to produce the antique cloth that earned La Khê its former glory. Female workers from the village are paid a piece rate and work on a dozen electric motor looms. Wages are low and employees lack sufficient know-how to rehabilitate this craft.

52When co-operatives did not take over, war, insecurity, the loss of a market for luxury goods, social instability, resulting from years of conflict and the large number of men fighting at the front, spelled the death of certain craft activities.


53After the fall of the Berlin Wall, co-operatives could no longer rely on the preferential markets of Eastern Europe. After decades of state control, craftspeople were faced with a tough challenge: in the context of Đổi Mới and its opendoor policy, they would either have to find new markets by themselves or watch their craft founder. Some villages managed to adapt to the new context, depending on the nature of their activity and on artisans’ personal history and social networks (especially relations with the merchants of Hà Nội, an age-old tradition connected to the Quarter of the 36 Streets). Today, some craftspeople run prosperous international businesses, some have reinvested their talents in other commercial or production activities, while others have left the village or gone back to agriculture.

The early days of Đổi Mới: some villages were ready for the market economy

The failure of the collectivist system and the laxity of local leaders

54Some of the more active craft villages in Bắc Ninh Province developed private initiatives long before the advent of Đổi Mới, thanks to the acquiescence of local authorities aware of the failure of the collectivist system. A number of disgruntled artisans left dysfunctional co-operatives and continued practising their craft illegally. Some villages, such as Đại Bái and Dýõng Ổ, had taken part in the war effort and produced military equipment (helmets, belt buckles and munitions) in the former, paper for revolutionary tracts in the latter. Then they very early carry out individual production.

55In Dýõng Ổ (Itinerary no1), only the production group that manufactured paper for army batteries could sell goods produced by family workshops. Before the market liberalisation of the 1980s, handicrafts was sometimes sold on the market. As its production grew, Dýõng Ổ became the hub of a mass production network integrating several villages and, to a lesser extent, the army. However, supply of raw materials remained an issue. bark could be bought through trade connections with highland people, but acquiring recycled paper was more problematic. A barter system operated between villagers and some administrations, whereby rice was traded against used paper. It is during this period that the craftspeople of Dýõng Ổ built networks with the leaders of small paper manufacturing state enterprises. This gave them access to mechanised workshops and allowed them to become acquainted with production methods thus far unknown to them (DiGregorio M., 1999).

The entrepreneurial spirit of merchant villages: lawbreaking, derring-do and business acumen

56In Đồng Kỵ (Itinerary no1), four former buffalo merchants ventured illegally into the antique furniture trade, despite the hazardous nature of the enterprise. It was wartime and the market was limited, but they nevertheless were the instigators of a new craft, thanks to which their village rose to become one of the more dynamic in the Delta. In the iron and steel industry village of Đa Hội, many artisans who did not want to become co-operative members continued to produce goods illegally. Women were responsible for fetching raw materials and selling tools produced in the workshops. Michael DiGregorio’s thesis provides us with a lively and gripping account of the perilous situations these intrepid black market amazons got themselves into in order to cross the bridge into the capital city. DiGregorio shows how these craftspeople and merchants managed to maintain their commercial and social network:

“As they had done under the old regime, the traders and producers of these villages escaped the authorities using a variety of means. They feigned ignorance of the law, colluded in erecting a wall of secrecy around the activities of other villagers and solicited the direct support of sympathetic village authorities. Women were tactically deployed to sell goods, while illicit activities were secluded within the inner lanes of the villages. It is no accident that much of the contraband and counterfeit goods that circulated in the socialist second economy originated in Từ Sõn’s workshops.

The 1980s and 1990s: the tough lessons of free enterprise

57With the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, co-operatives went bankrupt and producers had to find new markets for their wares.

Tapping into villagers’ initiative after decades in the co-operative straightjacket

58When the Phù Lãng co-operative closed down, its craftspeople returned to individual production and fired their pottery using the co-operative’s kilns, most of which were in Thủ Công. They encountered countless difficulties in trying to adapt to the market and complete orders. The state imposed this activity on Thủ Công, which is in an area not liable to flooding, while other villages had to practise agriculture. Producers tried to adapt and produce different goods. Originally, Phù Lãng produced ceramics for daily use, mostly for the local market: tiles and large yellow ochre jars for storing alcohol. The market for these products was limited: they were not in step with the modernisation of lifestyle and there was no market for them at all in the south of the country. Being fired in wood kilns, such goods were not standardised.

59Since the 1980s, a number of artisans have started producing funeral urns similar to those from Thổ Hà village, which was then going through a period of decline. Thổ Hà urns were more expensive than those from Phù Lãng, although they had more simple patterns. They were made using moulds rather than a potter’s wheel, which is a simpler technique. At the beginning of the 21st century, young craftsmen took over from their parents and gave up making funeral urns and jars. They started making decorative pottery, following in the footsteps of Vũ Hữu Nhung, a young craftsman trained at the Fine Arts School in Hà Nội.

60In 1965, only eight families in Đồng Kỵ were experts in decorative furniture. This new craft initially appeared during the war and only really took off at the end of the 1980s, with Đổi Mới and the ensuing liberalisation of trade in wood products as well as the emergence of a middle class. In the space of two decades, this enterprising village of buffalo merchants and small-scale craftspeople enjoyed nationwide success and came to control a large swathe of the export market in wood and quality furniture to Asian countries – especially China, where it has made use of its commercial networks, old and new. At the dawn of Đổi Mới, these courageous villagers succeeded in making their craft prosper: the number of artisans rose from 100 to 1,000 between 1970 and 1985.

Modernising and choosing industrialisation: innovation and entrepreneurship

61A first step towards mechanising production had already taken place within the co-operative system. When the majority of these closed down in the early 1990s, co-operative members bought the machines and continued production at home themselves. With the advent of Đổi Mới, artisans were aware of the need to increase production and modernise their businesses in order to access new markets and tried to buy machines by any means possible. Networks of textile merchants with links to Hồ Chí Minh City made it possible for villages such as La Phù to modernise their knitwear factories rapidly. Workshops in Vạn Phúc acquired sophisticated electric looms. Those textile, paper and metalwork villages that managed to reach the semi-industrial stage became players in the market economy system and must now face tough competition from Vietnamese or Chinese companies. Dýõng Ổ and Đa Hội in Bắc Ninh Province are both typical examples.

62In Dýõng Ổ, between 1974 and 1994, craftspeople mostly produced paper for the manufacture of firecrackers, using recycled paper and giấy dó. Since 1994, when the Vietnamese government banned firecracker production, Dýõng Ổ has undergone a swift evolution in production methods and techniques: in the space of ten years, producers went from manually producing giấy dó to mechanically producing toilet paper, Kraft paper and cardboard on mediumsized production lines. The biggest producers are specialised in typewriter paper and paper for quality notebooks, relying on the international market for their supply of raw materials. Dýõng Ổ is highly industrialised, in the sense that companies are vertically integrated and have succeeded in making the technological advances necessary to adapt to modern production. Industrialisation took place through technology transfer and a pre-existing division of labour, as this village was already somewhat open to the outside world. In 1988, a visionary craftsman initiated the mechanisation of paper production. His family is still prominent in the village and owns two of the three largest businesses in the industrial park.

63The main factor behind the rapid surge in scope of this village’s activities is its sharp awareness of the need to improve quality and build economies of scale. Owing to the growing size of its businesses and the extraordinary growth of its production, the village now relies on outside workforce, some of whom are technicians trained in the factories of Bãi Bằng.

64Within fifteen years, Đa Hội was transformed from a village of producers of agricultural tools, knives and assorted metal instruments into one of the main producers of ingots and iron and steel bars for the construction industry (12% of national production). This success story has been described in detail by DiGregorio. Producers managed to integrate the market through sheer adaptability, organisational skills and ingenuity. They started partly mechanising their production using machines that they altered and adapted to their specific products and relied on a highly fragmented production line. Each workshop specialises in just one stage of the production process.

65This is one of the most industrialised villages in Bắc Ninh Province (and so obviously is not on our list of itineraries!), owing its success to entrepreneurial drive, financial risk-taking and a capacity for innovation developed by tightly knit networks of villagers. Đa Hội stands at the helm of a cluster whose ramifications branch out to a dozen nearby villages, with outposts as far as the suburbs of Hồ Chí Minh City.

The disappearance of the least profitable crafts in Hà Nội’s peri-urban area

66Elderly people still practise minor crafts, but they are not passing on their skills to the next generation. Some of these crafts, such as gold and tin beating (Kiêu Kỵ, Itinerary no2) make do with a workforce that is inadequately trained or very poorly paid. Minor crafts can be seasonal activities connected with religious or cultural rituals, which have enjoyed a revival since the decline of collectivism.

67Despite a dramatic drop in the number of artisans, tò he rice dough toys and recycled metal toys continue to survive, as long as festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Children’s Festival remain an important tradition for Vietnamese people. – But for how much longer?

68In many villages, elderly people who formerly specialised in the manufacture of votive objects now spend a few hours in their daily routine producing such goods – mainly ingots. This brings in less than 10,000 VNĐ a day, but helps the poorest households to keep their heads above water.

69Production of very labour-intensive cultural and decorative goods by master craftsmen is becoming a thing of the past. A bronze jar incised with gold or silver wire can take an artisans of Đại Bái six months of labour, but only sells for three million VNĐ!

70Growing urbanisation, unbridled construction in industrial parks with foreign capital or capital from cities, and resulting land speculation, are all a potential threat for such vulnerable activities. Some of these crafts are still practised for lack of alternatives, especially where women are concerned. The production of nón (palm leaf conical hats) in Chuông village (Itinerary no7) is mainly carried out by women, children and the elderly. Income from this work is very low – under a dollar a day – yet a large consumer market exists for this elegant emblem of Vietnamese style. Nónmaking is easily integrated into the family environment and, more importantly in the case of Chuông, a local market is at hand to buy the necessary materials and sell one’s production. However, should a more lucrative activity be on offer nearby, then a sizeable proportion of young girls would probably relinquish this ancestral craft. In the near future, unrestricted construction of industrial parks in the area producing rattan and bamboo goods (Chýõng Mỹ District in Hà Tây) may introduce new competition for craft activities and attract part of the workforce from surrounding villages with higher wages.

71The map of craft activities in Hà Tây and Bắc Ninh Provinces clearly shows that wickerwork, which is mainly practised by women, developed within a radius of 20 km from the centre of the capital. Textile production has virtually disappeared in Hà Tây, apart from Vạn Phúc and mechanised textile villages (La Phù, Ỷ La, La Dýõng, etc.). However, the most profitable and dynamic sectors of the weaving industry did undergo a process of labour concentration. Certain craftspeople were allowed to employ skilled workers in addition to their family. A report sent to the Court in Huế in 1886 established the presence of one hundred weaving households in the village of La Khê (Hà Tây). Each business employed up to 10 weavers (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ, 2002). Today, the former silk cluster village of La Khê (Itinerary 4) has changed entirely: all of the land was expropriated and villagers have either become shopkeepers or simply live off the compensation money. Some of them have invested their compensation in the construction of dormitories for workers.

72The fact that agriculture is no longer practised in peri-urban areas is a greater cause for concern. Even though agriculture does not in itself suffice to feed a family due to the small size of fields, it can be practised in conjunction with a manual craft requiring little capital input or know-how, such as wickerwork. There is a long list of craft villages whose activities died out after they were engulfed by the city of Hà Nội: the famous papermaking villages on the banks of West Lake (see boxed article p. 28-29), votive ingot manufacturers in Giáp Tứ and Giáp Nhị villages, in the south part of the city (Thanh Trì), the lacemakers of Hà Đông suburb… Two or three copper smelters remain in the famous village of Ngũ Xã on the banks of Trúc Bạch Lake, currently a popular residential spot for wealthier expatriates.

73Yet urbanisation is not necessarily a harbinger of impending death for craft activities. Indeed, the most famous craft villages, such as Bát Tràng and Vạn Phúc, are located in the suburbs of Hà Nội. It all depends on the scale of production, level of mechanisation and cohesion of trade networks underlying these activities. Selective discrimination through urbanisation occurs because of complex economic, social and political criteria, which need to be examined in more detail.


This village, in the southern suburbs of Hà Nội, specialises in manufacturing goods from recycled metal. Is this a dying craft?

Once nestled on the banks of Tô Lịch River, Hồng is home to about fifty families who previously manufactured toys from recycled metal (drum-beating rabbits, butterflies on springs and ships that could sail on water, given a modicum of skill and a dollop of motor oil).

The artisans of this village would spend their days cutting sheet metal, hammering, welding and painting objects that filled children with joy during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Before it became flooded with Chinese goods, Hàng Mã Street in Hà Nội sold products from Hồng. In 2001, only three or four women were still practising the craft. They were the last inheritors of this skill. Today, the village has been absorbed into the urban fabric and no longer coils along the famous Tô Lịch River – whose beauty and cultural wealth was celebrated by famous Vietnamese poet and strategist Nguyễn Trãi (Itinerary no6) – but along Hà Nội’s largest open sewer.

Such toys can now only be found in the Museum of Ethnography and in a few shops on Hàng Thiếc (Tin Street), where shopkeepers have seized on tourists’fascination for these colourful and exotic objects that fit easily inside a suitcase.

(Boulden R., 2007)

Xuân La

This village (Phu Xuyen, Hà Tây) is specialised in making rice dough figurines (tò he). For three centuries at least, Xuân La has produced these dainty and short-lived toys that bring delight to children during festivals or outings to markets and public parks. Despite not being very profitable, the tradition lives on in the face of infinitely superior competition from Chinese-imported video games. These toys have the interesting feature of being edible after use. Around 300 artisans still practise this craft, which is passed on from one generation to the next. These tireless craftsmencum-travelling salesmen criss-cross the region, making and selling these magical and ephemeral objects for children. Some of them have left Vietnam and practise their craft in neighbouring countries (China, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand).

(Vietnam Cultural Window, 2002)

Papermaking villages of Northern Vietnam

When they arrived in the north of Vietnam in the 19th century, the French took an interest in local paper manufacturing techniques. Although more of a craft than an industry, fundamental papermaking processes did not differ much from what was being practised elsewhere in the world. The main difference concerned the use of 100% botanical raw materials, in contrast to Western practices where rag-based paper dominated the market – at least for the best grades of paper.

In Vietnam, traditional paper (giấy dó) was exclusively produced by certain villages, each specialising in one particular variety: wrapping paper, votive paper, printing paper, or watermarked paper for imperial patents. Often, they were the sole crafts practised in a village. The number of villages that earned all or part of their living from this activity is not known. Some of them were located close to areas where raw materials were plentiful. In the region of Phú-Thọ, for instance, villages were built close to the hills where paper mulberry trees, or cây giýõng (Broussonetia paperifera L.) and (Wikstroemia balansae Gilg.) grew – although only the latter were cultivated. In the twentieth century, Crevost Ch. (1917), Claverie F. (1903) and (1904) and, later, Hunter D. (1947), described how bark was bought, the quality and quantity of paper produced and the papermaking technique of Phi Đình village (Hạ Hòa District, near Thanh Ba). However, the greatest number of papermaking villages was to be found on the outskirts of Hà Nội, close to potential buyers. Bark was brought to the villages by porter or by cart from Phú Thọ and from as far away as Quảng Ninh, Hòa Bình, Bắc Cạn and Thái Nguyễn.

Although proximity to raw materials and consumer markets initially appeared to be the essential motive behind the specialisation of papermaking centres, this does not stand up to further analysis. It seems that historical factors linked with the initial establishment of this imported craft had much more to do with the locations of specialised villages. After papermaking techniques were introduced, artisans passed on their jealously guarded trade secrets from one generation to the next. Today, certain skills and approaches to papermaking have declined to the extent that only a single individual remains who is capable of producing goods of a specific quality. While being the last depositary of this know-how, such a person recognizes that unless papermaking techniques can be passed on to a family member, who alone is entitled to receive it, they will be lost forever.

  • 5 French School of Far Eastern Studies
  • 6 L’Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense, Ivry-sur-Seine, Fra (...)

We know many things about these villages on the outskirts of Hà Nội. The road known as Thuỵ Khuê leading to the grapefruit village (Býởi) and running along the southern bank of West Lake was known as Paper Village Road until 1951. In the colonial period, it was a spot for Sunday walks popular among the French. As a result, technical descriptions and exceptional visual archives remain, including drawings by Henri Oger and Gustave Dumoutier, photographs from the former EFEO5 collection (now in Vietnam) and private collections such as that of the Imbert brothers, kept at ECPAD6 (Ivry-sur-Seine, France). Using this documentation and testimonies collected from the elders of Yên Thái village, it is relatively easy to recreate the production techniques as well as the social context of paper production.

In Yên Thái, paper production is a very ancient craft. For seven centuries, this village has been famed for this activity in much the same way that Bát Tràng is known for ceramics and Ngũ Xã for its bronze products. In 1921, 126 families in the commune were listed as making a living from paper production. The adjoining villages of Hồ Khẩu and Đông Xã also derived their livelihood from this craft. Villages specialised in paper production as follows: Yên Thái village produced writing and printing paper, while Hồ Khẩu and Đông Xã villages made higher quality paper in a larger format used for printing traditional folk images. A few workshops were scattered further south near Paper Bridge (Cầu Giấy), including that of the Lại family, the papermaking elite who only produced higher-end paper for official patents. A string of specialised villages stretched from West Lake to Tô Lịch.

As industrialisation took off rapidly in the 1920s, newsprint, the quintessential industrial product, began to flood the market of the new colony and hastened the decline of local production. The French eventually concluded that proper factories needed to be established locally to produce cellulose fibre, using local wood. At the time, Indochina was experiencing a paper crisis with significant financial repercussions, since printing paper had to be imported from Metropolitan France. Pawlowsky summed up this paradoxical situation as follows: “we are importing cellulose from the chilly North, where vegetation grows most slowly, as though the warmest regions refused to supply us.” Yet very few species of tree had the qualities required for papermaking. This largely remains the case today, especially considering the extent of deforestation in Vietnam. Paper produced in Bãi Bằng factory, established thirty years ago with help from Sweden, is made with cellulose from eucalyptus trees that sprout all over the hills of the midlands of Northern Vietnam. Eucalyptus trees were chosen because of their ability to grow rapidly, but their cultivation has caused the soil to become acidified and barren. All this highlights the fact that previous decisions made by Vietnamese or Chinese paper manufacturers were largely sound, although they only satisfied limited demand in a country with a low literacy rate, where paper was used sparingly.

Today, paper production remains inadequate in Vietnam as it covers at best a third of domestic demand. The country is dependent on imported paper pulp due to a lack of raw materials. Supply is not sufficiently diversified and the influx of imported paper, which has been easier to obtain since Vietnam became a member of the WTO, represents a considerable threat to an industry already in crisis. Besides a handful of factories worthy of the name, production units are nothing more than village workshops that use obsolete technology and produce low-grade paper. As they work on a small scale, they have to buy raw materials in small quantities and at a higher cost. They are shutting down one after another, as they do not have the financial means to implement the treatment of wastewater now required by law.

The high quality paper market, reproducing the kinds of traditional paper already mentioned, could be made to yield more added value, but is not being exploited to its full potential. Yên Thái discontinued production of this entirely manual craft in the early eighties. Manufacturing high quality paper consumes large amounts of water, as well as firewood for the furnace, and the industry fell victim to competition from industrial paper manufacturers. In search of ancient techniques, we visited Bắc Ninh Province and more specifically the village of Dýõng Ổ, Phong Khê Commune, Yên Phong District, where paper production is still a major activity and almost 3,000 people make a living from this craft. Though production of paper still survives, it has become marginalised, largely replaced by recycled and votive paper. The know-how remains intact and a few technical improvements have been added; ancient methods for screening a thin layer of bark pulp onto the papermaking frame or removing bark from strips of wood have remained unchanged. They are in fact identical to the methods and practices captured in old sepia photographs.

Le Failler P., EFEO, Hà Nội, March 2008

Historical perspective: rapid turnover, market adaptation and the ancestral roots of handicrafts

74As we contemplate the history of handicrafts in the Red River Delta over the course of several centuries, an endless cycle seems to emerge: its narratives tell of the birth of the crafts, their dissemination and specialisation, technical improvements and eventually their death and resurrection. Crafts are mobile: artisans have a strong tendency to migrate and develop their techniques wherever they find a favourable market. Indeed, the origins of many of the crafts of South Vietnam can be traced back to the Red River Delta. Craftspeople have always been present, regardless of the vicissitudes in the country’s economic history or tensions with the colonisers or dominant powers. The instigators of crafts were frequently individuals – whether mythical or historical figures. Each era has been more or less favourable or detrimental to each specific craft, depending on factors such as the dynamism of the capital, the nature of the reign of each ruling monarch, or changes of influence in markets and communication routes.

75• The subregional and international context has had a significant impact on these crafts: since Đổi Mới, competition from certain foreign goods has toughened (during the colonial period, coarse textiles were undermined by competing European-made fine cotton fabric); competition with China has been disastrous for such sectors as silk production, metal and bamboo containers, etc.

76• Fashions change – latania palm leaf coats and heron feather hats are no longer popular – and this, coupled with industrial development, has sounded the death knell for many craft activities.

77• Crafts associated with religious worship are being revived (votive objects, lacquer and wood carving, bronze and copper objects for ancestors’ shrines, etc.). These practices were abolished during the collectivist era.

78• Political and customs measures may have limited the production of certain crafts, while encouraging a process of conversion for others. The 1994 ban on firecracker production boosted the industrialisation of papermakers in Dýõng Ổ, but also wiped those villages in Hà Tây who failed to reconvert to a different activity right off the handicraft map. Firecracker production had been established through co-operatives in Thanh Oai District in the 1980s, where it took over from an ailing wickerwork industry.

79The type of cluster organisation characteristic to Vietnamese handicrafts is a pre-capitalist system that has survived the advent of the market economy. This stands in sharp contrast with the rest of East and Southeast Asia, where large, international corporations thrive on laissez-faire economics and cheap labour. Despite the competition with China, Vietnam is managing to steer its own course and continues to produce artisans. But for how much longer?

80The rate at which villagers are renewing and replacing craft activities is indicative of these people’s potential for adapting rapidly to new situations (some villages have successfully mechanised and increased the scale of their production and employ a sizeable workforce). However, this also highlights the frailty of certain crafts that are particularly vulnerable to economic and social conditions or suffer from geographical isolation.

81A number of trends emerge from a longitudinal study based on the mapping of craft villages in Hà Tây and Bắc Ninh Province; this study consists mainly of a comparison between the mapping and the census conducted by Pierre Gourou in the 1930s along with various censuses carried out in the 2000s.

Hà Tây: the province of a thousand crafts

82A comparison between the 2003 map and the map of villages drawn up on the basis of the 1930 census reveals that out of 216 villages listed in 1930 for which an activity was specified, 103 no longer practise a craft activity, 56 have changed their activity and 60 are still working in the same sector.

83During the colonial era, half of the villages were grouped in craft clusters: a large concentration of textile villages appears in the north (Hoài Ðức District), while another cluster of villages specialised in conical hats, raincoats and, to a lesser extent, rattan and bamboo goods, appears south of the centre (Thanh Oai); thợ mộc villages in the south, embroiderers in Thýờng Tín District in the south-west and a smaller cluster of lacquerware and wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl in Phú Xuyên. Food production is highly diversified and dispersed around the province (rice husking or hàng sao, alcohol, assorted noodle producers, soya bean or rice cakes). The other villages are scattered according to a rationale of spatial distribution that can only be explained on a case-by-case basis, by examining their founding myths (see map p. 32). The dissemination of the crafts, the good and bad fortune of each village and the role played by craft ancestors all contributed to creating the very complex geographical configuration of craft villages.

84Textiles are prominent in this province: 20,000 workers are involved in this industry, out of a total of 54,000 listed in the Delta. 4,500 lace makers, over 6,000 weavers producing a wide variety of cotton cloth and over 4,000 silk producers and spinners. Cotton producing villages manufacture clothes, terry towels or belts. Each artisan specialises in one type of goods, but several activities such as production of cotton, coarse silk, lace or fishing nets can take place within the same village. This sector is mainly the preserve of women.

85In 1930, the province of Hà Tây (at that time made up of the former Hà Ðông and Sõn Tây Provinces) numbered 37 villages specialising in cotton cloth and cotton by-products and 25 silk spinners or silk producers. Half of these villages were located in Hoài Ðức District and its surroundings (34 villages). Near Hà Ðông was the silk cluster composed of seven La villages (La Phù, La Khê, La Nội, La Dýõng, La Cả, Ðông La, Ỷ La) and three Mỗ villages (Ðại Mỗ, Tây Mỗ, Vãn Mỗ) (Itinerary no4). The other villages were located north and south of this large textile-producing hub. Embroiderers were – and still are – situated around the parent village of Quất Động in Thýờng Tín District. This craft is doing fairly well. It was helped along and revitalised by co-operatives during the collectivist era and, despite a series of severe jolts in the early days of Đổi Mới because of the lack of a clearly defined market, today there are over fifty embroidery villages in Hà Tây Province (Itinerary no6).

86What is left of colonial-era spinning and weaving villages? Only 11 remain in Hoài Ðức District and its surroundings, which mainly specialise in mid-range cotton cloth for the local market, in addition to two silk villages. Others have either completely ceased producing handicrafts or reconverted to another activity, such as food production, as is the case of most villages around Cát Quế, Minh Khai and Dýõng Liễu (Itinerary no9). Those new textile activities that successfully spread to bordering villages have become mechanised. Some such villages (e.g. La Phù, Itinerary no4) employ a large workforce.

87Woodcraft also used to be a prominent activity in this province, with about sixty specialised villages. Itinerant carpenters, known as thợ mộc, came from about thirty villages, mostly in the south of the province (Ứng Hòa) in an area prone to flooding during the monsoon. Pierre Gourou counted 9,000 of them in Hà Đông Province, out of a total 23,000 listed in the Delta. As their land could not be cultivated during the monsoon, these artisans would spend half the year elsewhere in the Delta – some would go as far as Saigon – where they worked on the construction of houses and religious buildings. Other woodworkers – lacquer artisans, pit sawyers, woodcutters and woodcarvers, machine tool manufacturers – were scattered around the province.

88Woodcraft currently employs an abundant workforce, but today the crafts are different: new activities have appeared (mainly production of quality furniture around Vạn Ðiểm or Chuyên Mỹ in the south) while others no longer exist. Thợ mộc have vanished from the landscape: large-scale water management projects carried out during the collectivist era have made biannual or even triannual rice harvests a reality, and the concrete strip houses that replace traditional dwellings with heavy wooden beams have turned this craft – formerly organised in guilds – into a thing of the past. Some thợ mộc villages turned to the production of rattan and bamboo goods, which requires little investment, or gave up crafts altogether. Only four thợ mộc villages in the province managed to continue working with wood, none of them in Ứng Hòa District, which is poorer and further removed from urban centres. In the north of the province, in Thạch Thất District, a large mid-range furniture cluster has developed around Hữu Bằng and Chàng Sõn, formerly populated by travelling craftspeople and women weavers. This cluster produces furniture for the domestic market only and is almost as vibrant as Đồng Kỵ in Bắc Ninh. Nhị Khê, which specialises in wood turning (Itinerary no5), has passed on its craft to two former thợ mộc villages.

Craftvillages in 1930 (Hà Tây Province)

Craftvillages in 1930 (Hà Tây Province)

Craf tvillages in 2006 (Hà Tây and Bắc Ninh Provinces)

Craf tvillages in 2006 (Hà Tây and Bắc Ninh Provinces)

89Bình Vọng – the birthplace of lacquer in Hà Tây Province – prospered from this craft in colonial times, but it has since died out: artisans passed away one after another and no-one took up the trade. After the war, the craft and the temple dedicated to its founder had both vanished without trace. The only surviving craftsman is now over 90 years old and no longer practises the craft. This village, situated near the A1 Road and Thýờng Tín Station, now earns its income from commerce; since this is more profitable, no-one has tried to resurrect lacquerwork. The village of Hạ Thái, which practises diversified crafts (e.g. wickerwork, votive objects) and commercial activities, is situated a few kilometres north and took over the lacquerware business during the second part of the 20th century. Most of the great artisans from this village learned their skill in Bình Vọng.

90Finally, wickerwork is currently present in over 40% of villages in Hà Tây and was already highly developed by the 1930s, when it was practised in about fifty villages around the province. Gourou listed 19 types of utensils and objects made from bamboo: from chopsticks and headdresses to fishing implements and baskets of all kinds. In addition, over twenty villages manufactured latania palm leaf products. Villages specialised in such goods were scattered around the province and each of them would supply its local population.

91This fluid and changeable craft is prevalent today, but its geographical configuration and type of production have changed. Although a few elderly people still weave fish traps, scoops for bailing water or large baskets for carrying rice, most of the production is for export. Decorative tableware (e.g. trays, baskets, vases, pictures, lamps) is sold to developed Asian countries or in the West.

92In the area to the north of Hà Tây (a number of whose villages are now under the jurisdiction of Hà Nội), 17 villages specialising in the production of various types of items were listed (nón, latania palm leaf coats, large baskets (bồ), etc.). These crafts are no longer practised there, except in the Ninh Sở cluster on the banks of the Red River, which includes seven villages and a total of 4,000 craftspeople. This cluster formerly produced very tightly woven bamboo jars for storing unhusked rice. Nowadays, these artisans produce bamboo and rattan objects for export. A co-operative set up during the collectivist era helped to spread the craft to other villages and obtain access to the international market.

93One of the largest basket-weaving clusters was set up around a single village, Phú Vinh, in Chýõng Mỹ District, in the west of the province. It is renowned for its ancestral know-how in producing rattan products. Thanks to a co-operative whose output sold on the East European market, the craft was passed on to a dozen other villages in the area (Itinerary no8).

94Over fifteen villages in the conical hat cluster of Chuông managed to survive the vicissitudes of history and preserve their craft, despite its low profitability and labour-intensive nature (Itinerary no7). It has only died out in four villages. The cluster has become integrated within an area specialising in bamboo and wicker that has managed to diversify and extend its activities (fans, cages, incense sticks, etc.).

95A village specialised in wicker weaving, Lýu Thýợng, in the south of the province (Itinerary no7), was moderately active in the 1930s and became the centre of a small and dynamic cluster open to the export market. It has disseminated its know-how to a dozen other villages. It is linked with the nón manufacturing cluster through subcontracting.

96Small, scattered villages specialising in a single item did not survive the open-door policy, except in cases where they were helped along by co-operatives and managed to disseminate their know-how and increase the scale of production for export sales. Former clusters manage to survive, but this may not last much longer for those who fail to break into the international market.

Bắc Ninh: cradle of Vietnamese civilisation, Buddhism and… trade

97Half of the 77 villages listed in Bắc Ninh Province in 2003 developed a craft activity in Imperial times. Bắc Ninh forms part of Kinh Bắc, the cradle of Vietnamese civilisation, birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism and home to a particularly rich religious and cultural heritage. It also boasts a great many market places, as it is located at the crossroads of commercial routes between the Delta and the highlands on the road to China:

  • wood carving villages of Phù Khê and Hýõng Mạc;
  • the bronze and copper beating centre of Đại Bái;
  • pottery villages of Phù Lãng;
  • Đa Hội, formerly specialised in the metal parts of ploughing tools, has become an important centre for the iron and steel industry.

98In colonial times, craft villages were concentrated along the Ðuống River and in the area close to Hà Nội to the west. There were just over sixty of them within the territory of today’s Bắc Ninh Province (Bắc Ninh has lost many of its former communes to Hà Nội). However, over half of these villages no longer practise their craft, 16 of them have kept it up and 12 have converted to other types of production.

99The textile industry suffered most from collectivisation: only three of the province’s 12 textile villages remain (work is mainly performed by women). Silk production has completely disappeared. Only one village situated on the other side of Hà Nội’s provincial border, Chi Ðông, still breeds silkworms as a seasonal activity. Cocoons are reeled off and treated in a different village (Bunney T.).

100Yet in 1930 Pierre Gourou counted 1,650 weavers in this province, 600 of whom specialised in silk. Cotton cloth was mainly produced by women using rudimentary narrow looms. Colonial-era wickerwork villages have all disappeared, except for one. The dozen or so villages practising this craft today only started doing it more recently. Only two colonial-era food-processing villages have survived (e.g. noodles, various cakes, rice wine, rice flour or cassava starch). As with wickerwork, today’s food-processing villages are recent recruits.

101Food-processing activities have greatly changed. Although such practices as noodle and vermicelli production are still widespread, others such as distilling rice wine and rice husking performed by hàng sáo are only practised by a handful of villagers; rice husking only brought a very meagre income. Despite low standards of living and the predominance of rice in their diet, villagers of the Red River Delta have a fertile culinary imagination: for decades, many villages have learned to make a wide variety of rice cakes, noodles and sweets to spice up an otherwise dull diet. The poorest families still eat đậu phụ, or tofu, made from soya, to replace animal protein. Nowadays, only one village specialises in producing đậu phụ. During the colonial era, eight villages were specialised in alcohol production. Today, only two remain in Bắc Ninh Province, one of which is trying to improve the calibre of its output and obtain a quality-label for commercial purposes.

102Although wickerwork is practised by almost 40% of craft villages in Hà Tây Province, it is uncommon in Bắc Ninh, where growing industrialisation and the mechanisation of many activities have caused the ruin of this labour-intensive and poorly paid craft. It also suffered from the competition created by plastic containers, largely imported from China. Former wickerwork villages in Bắc Ninh have ceased practising this craft. Only five villages in the east of the province produce baskets or bamboo furniture, all of them only since relatively recently.


103Between 1995 and 2002, the number of craft villages in the Red River Delta increased from 500 to 1,000, which represents 40% of craft villages in Vietnam. Half of these are located within a fifty-kilometre radius of Hà Nội. The rapid development of crafts and especially industrial activities has generated a vigorous growth in production and increased the surface area used; it has also provided jobs for many under-employed villagers previously working in agriculture. According to a 1999 World Bank report, craft villages represented 41% of GDP in the industrial non-state sector and employed 64% of the workforce in the non-state-run industrial sector. The growth rate for rural handicrafts and industrial production reached 9% a year at the end of the 1990s and exports exceeded USD 600 million in 2003.

104Some village clusters, led by highly enterprising craft villages, concentrate a large workforce within a wide radius. Their environment has greatly changed and the average family income is four times higher than in agricultural villages. Wages range between 500,000 VNĐ and 2.5 million VNĐ per month, depending on tasks and type of goods. Artisans’standard of living has vastly improved and many of them are investing in modernising their homes.

105Villages are diversifying their activities and accommodate larger numbers of people, which prevents migration to cities or to other productive regions of Vietnam. However, how can one create new craft and industrial parks in the densely populated villages of this flood-prone Delta without harming the environment or jeopardising a culture and heritage that is thousands of years old?

Family-run businesses in craft village clusters

106Three-quarters of all businesses are still small-scale and family-based. Craftsmanship is still largely manual work practised in workshops in the heart of the villages. These activities are very much integrated into the life and daily routine of families, with children and the elderly assisting when necessary. Handicrafts employ over 50% of the population in most of these villages. Only the wealthier artisans have access to land outside the village, where small and medium-sized businesses set up shop, developing and modernising the production process.

Villages pooled into clusters

107The map of craft activities around Hà Nội (see map p. 33) shows groups of villages practising the same activity. Some clusters include several dozen villages – as is more commonly the case for wickerwork and embroidery clusters. Pierre Gourou already described this trend during the colonial era and it has become more pronounced with time: currently, very few villages are not part of a cluster. Only those pottery villages that survived the political and economic upheavals of the 20th century are able to perform the entire production process within their village, as is the case in Bát Tràng and Phù Lãng. These villages are also situated along rivers, the preferred communication routes for obtaining raw materials and selling heavy, bulky goods. However, they do rely on other villages for workforce and services.

108A cluster is a geographical grouping of villages specialising in the same sector, whose businesses are interconnected and within which there is a high degree of labour division. The development of this geographically based production system came in response to the need for production to expand spatially after Vietnam opened up to the market economy. Clusters widen rural workers’ scope for employment to neighbouring villages, facilitate the creation of new production sites and allow for the division of labour among villages with complementary activities; they also encourage the development of commercial services higher up and lower down the commodity chain. An elaborate subcontracting system links the most dynamic villages with neighbouring ones who have more recently joined the cluster, or private companies with family businesses – depending on the type of activity. Relations among craftspeople and between villages within the same cluster are largely based on family ties, friendship or political and professional connections whose origin may go back a long way.

109The particularity of Vietnamese craft villages compared with their Western equivalents is largely the result of the country’s economic, demographic and political context. Like China, Vietnamese economy is in transition. Rural density can be very high and the workforce is abundant, young and only partly qualified (in ancient craft villages, know-how is passed on within families from one generation to the next). This production system stimulates the ingenuity of producers, as demonstrated in various ways: the widespread use of recycled materials, the practice of making home-made spare parts when they are too difficult or expensive to obtain on the local market, or prolonging the use of machines far beyond their conceivable lifespan.

110Lastly, these peculiarly social and political forms of organisation, built up from family dynamics, clearly favour trade, organisation into commodity chains, networking, etc. They encourage integration and co-operation between workshops and businesses of varying sizes, each one responsible for a part of the production process. A cluster of craft villages is a localised production system bringing together traditional rural industries within an endogenous development process. Geographical concentration of small businesses can be associated with the development of trading networks: it promotes economies of scale, enables a more efficient use of supply networks and encourages dissemination of know-how within a society deeply rooted in village culture where several generations live under the same roof. A cluster of craft villages includes variable numbers of localities and businesses, whether officially registered or family-based. The way these clusters function depends on the nature of their activities.

111The organisation of clusters takes place on three levels:

112At village level: work is divided up between complementary businesses, each responsible for one stage of production: For instance, an aluminium kettle is manufactured by several workshops, each specialising in making one part of the object – the bottom, the spout or the handle. Businesses can also specialise in one type of product: kettles, trays, basins or decorative objects in the case of the metal beating village (Đại Bái, Itinerary no3); fresh rice noodles, dried rice noodles, rice wine or cassava starch in the case of food-processing villages. In addition, mechanisation and diversification have extended the production chain and generated an increase in the division of labour between households. Recycled raw materials (paper or metal) are traded down a long line of collectors, then processed by artisans who have invested in machines – smelters sell recycled metal in the form of ready-to-use sheets, which can then be cut to make pots, trays and gongs.

113Between villages: several types of inter-village relations can be found within clusters. Each village specialises in one type of product but relies on others for raw materials, know-how, production space and workforce. In the iron and steel village of Đa Hội, artisans from the parent village are responsible for smelting and casting scrap iron, selling ingots and turning them into rods or bars, while surrounding villages provide the workforce and services (e.g. manual transport, trading in chemicals and technical assistance), rent out plots of land to extend production space and manufacture iron gates with rods bought from Đa Hội. A subcontracting system operates among villages. The most dynamic ones, where many private companies are based, have contractual relations with family businesses in neighbouring villages. These prosperous communities are the instigators of the craft who disseminated its practice, either via co-operatives during the collectivist era or apprenticeships after Đổi Mới. Large-scale enterprises in the formal sector take orders from foreign clients and subcontract them out to production managers from different villages in the cluster that specialise in this type of product. The latter then redistribute the work among numerous households who only carry out the manual part of the production process. Assembly, quality control and finishing take place in the prime manufacturer’s workshops.

114Between village businesses and formal sector companies on industrial parks: large-scale companies established on urban industrial parks subcontract the production of spare parts to specialised workshops in craft villages. This type of relationship can be found in the metalworking industry.

115In addition, this system is well adapted to the context of a transition economy. According to Michael DiGregorio (2001), cluster structures are far more flexible and more capable of responding rapidly to market demand than private or State-run formal sector enterprises. This is in large part thanks to reduced bureaucracy and to the fact that most businesses within cluster structures belong to the informal sector. Indeed, family members can contribute to production, residential dwellings can be used and working hours can be adapted to individual orders, which increases flexibility (i. e. night shifts, overtime, etc.). Employment is flexible and can easily adapt to the market or to the conditions of production (frequent power cuts and problems with the supply of raw materials can slow down production).

sanding furniture, Đồng Kỵ

116Businesses within a production chain are able to take over economic niches neglected by large, formal sector companies, who must adhere to management and quality standards and abide by much more restrictive legislation. For the least skilled tasks, they also have the advantage of a more flexible and largely underpaid family-based workforce, most of whom carry out agricultural activities in parallel. During the rice harvest, workers abandon the workshops, even though their presence might be needed to complete orders for clients.

The origins of clusters: high division of labour and specialised villages

117Pierre Gourou observed a tendency for each village to specialise in one specific activity and for labour to be divided among villages, which thus become integrated production groups manufacturing the same type of goods.

118This process probably started at the onset of the 17th century, at a time when handicrafts underwent rapid development under the impetus of the growth of Hà Nội. The production process needed to be rationalised. According to Gourou, it was based on:

119• A monopolistic mindset organised around social rules and rituals. Once they had succeeded in developing an industry, villages wanted to protect their production methods, which therefore had to be kept secret.

120• Poverty meant that craftspeople sought to make a swift profit and lacked the means to purchase large amounts of raw materials or to lock up capital. Individual villages would therefore only carry out part of the production process and sell semi-manufactured goods to another village, which would in turn manufacture the finished product.

121Division of labour is particularly noticeable in the silk industry, where the production process entails several different stages. Each stage is carried out by a different village within a network: growing mulberry trees and breeding silkworms, reeling off the silkworm’s cocoon, spinning silk, weaving and dyeing. Many weaving villages were unable to breed silkworms, because their land was not suitable for growing mulberry trees. In addition, each weaving village specialised in one of the many different varieties of silk – organza, brocade, taffeta, velvet or raw silk (Itinerary no4). This is how craft village clusters originated. Some activities were complementary: the lacquerware manufacturers of Bình Vọng often worked with woodcraft or wickerwork villages.

122Another factor explaining the high degree of interdependence among villages is the fragmented way in which raw materials are used for the manufacture of various goods (e.g. bamboo or latania palm leaves). Each village only uses part of the raw materials for the manufacture of the goods it specialises in, and then sells on what is left to other villages, which use it to produce the category of objects they specialise in. For example, the potters of Bát Tràng use ash for the enamel on their pottery. They buy this ash from the potters of Ðinh Xá, who produce unvarnished pottery.

Villages as a densely populated and multifunctional space subject to the stress of growth

123In 1999, residential density was higher than 15,000 inhabitants per km2 in 28% of villages in the Delta. This is similar to the figure for Hà Nội city centre. In most craft villages, craftmaking is performed at home, in the heart of the village. Available space in the home is very limited and some activities – especially those involving machines – cannot be accommodated. This is an issue when it comes to modernising an activity.

124In the 1990s, in villages that had begun to mechanise their production process or increase their scale of production thanks to access to international markets, the most dynamic artisans, with help from local authorities, set up new production facilities wherever they could find space – along roads or dykes, on the site of former co-operatives or administrative buildings or on ponds that had since been filled in. At the request of craftspeople, provincial People’s Committees changed the status of agricultural land, which became land to be used for industrial production, and created informal mini-handicraft zones. Provincial and communal People’s Committees established a battery of legal and regulatory provisions to facilitate access to land for artisans; this, in a country where paddy fields are regarded as sacred and where the status of agricultural land cannot be changed easily. Then in the 2000s, provincial People’s Committees enacted laws to enable the creation of industrial parks in the most dynamic communes.

125A three-tier production regime has emerged:

126• In industrial parks, businesses undergoing a modernisation process have attained a similar level of production to that of state-run or private mixed capital formal sector enterprises. Their production costs are lower and they have colonised niche markets for secondary quality goods. They are using increasing amounts of space and energy.

127• Companies beginning the mechanisation process have set up on the outskirts of residential areas, along dykes, on the sites of former co-operatives or by partially filled-in ponds.

128• In village residential areas, only manual activities or those requiring small machines remain. Family businesses have a weak capacity for investment and rely largely on family members or workers paid a daily flat rate. They mostly work as subcontractors. Such activities are tolerated despite the deafening noise emitted by some workshops (e.g. metalwork, papermaking and textiles).

129These policies are nevertheless causing severe problems: farmers are being expropriated of their land while the more affluent craftspeople indulge in land speculation; in addition, residential property is being built in these industrial parks and industrial wastewater treatment systems are not being used. The high price of land restricts possibilities for the less affluent artisans to access such sites. As long as the specific sociology of craft villages is not taken into account, attempts to separate production from living space are doomed to failure. Craftspeople live with their craft. They are, so to speak, married to it. Their daily routine is structured around it. They sometimes work at night to complete large orders and prefer to live and produce in the same place in order to supervise their workers and protect their property. All family members, young and old alike, are involved in the production process, according to their abilities and available time, which is also a way of passing on family know-how from generation to generation. Owing to the rapid increase in the scale of production, village workshops are packed with raw materials, machines and workers. The homes of Dýõng Ổ are stacked with recycled paper, while those of Đồng Kỵ are crammed solid with wood and machines. In the homes of Đại Bái, basins containing hazardous chemicals sit alongside utensils for everyday life. Pollution is harming public health and especially children, who roam inside these multi-purpose and cramped dwellings at great risk to their health. Hazards are particularly numerous in metalworking villages, where lung diseases, infertility among women and deformed babies are common consequences (Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, 2002).

130Most artisans are unaware of these risks as they single-mindedly pursue the development of their activity. Public space is also overrun with raw materials as some consider the street outside their door to be the perfect storage place. Local authorities lack the legal apparatus to prevent craftspeople from acting as they see fit. Interaction between lineages and local authorities disruptes land management.

131In wickerwork and food-processing villages (e.g. vermicelli, yeast, etc.), artisans have to deal with a shortage of space to dry their products. Their activity drops off sharply during the rainy season. As these crafts yield low profits, they can only be carried out in villages equipped with drying areas, such as those located along the dykes (Dýõng Liễu and Minh Khai, Itinerary no9). They are restricted to parts of the village with still undeveloped land or to family homes with large courtyards. However, drying food products along extremely dusty dyke roads poses hygiene problems.

132The rapid growth of companies situated in industrial parks has nevertheless reached its peak due to competition from China and between mechanised businesses within the area. The surge in the price of raw materials (it is becoming increasingly difficult to import wood or buy recycled metal) and the high cost of borrowing further contribute to curbing the trend.

133In villages where craftspeople have little means at their disposal, building an industrial site is a thorny undertaking. Artisans who bought a plot of land in the industrial park in Đại Bái are taking a very long time to set up there. In 2008, four years after the site was established, only about twenty out of 168 registered businesses had built a workshop. Lack of funds, compulsory construction standards imposed by the Management Committee, the need to mortgage one’s home to obtain a loan and the length of administrative procedures to borrow money all impede the process. Craftspeople are only able to change the scale of production and mechanise their business – an essential move if one is to afford the industrial park's higher production costs – if the economical context is favourable and they control the production chain upstream and downstream. Lastly, moving away from other artisans who are part of the same production chain tends to destabilise the way in which work is organised. Many craftspeople wait for sufficient numbers of their colleagues to have moved before following them. The location of plots of land in the industrial park is drawn by lots without taking into account the spatial distribution specific to clusters (see Itinerary no3, the quest for the holy kettle in Đại Bái, p. 162-163).

Challenges to improving rural planning in the Red River Delta

134Craft villages are facing multiple challenges, one of which is Vietnam’s accession to the WTO. The latter implies an array of economic measures in order for companies to comply with requirements, which may have serious implications for craft workshops, three-quarters of which belong to the informal sector. However, we will only examine two of the most conspicuous questions: environmental issues and improvement in the quality of products.

The difficulties of managing environmental challenges

135The rapid development of craft activities, and especially industrial activities, has caused serious environmental and public health problems. The original spatial configuration of craft villages was forged over centuries by the practice of handicrafts; today it is subjected to new environmental and social stresses resulting from the increase in scale of production methods. In this densely populated deltaic region, agricultural land is criss-crossed by a dense network of waterways that overlaps areas dedicated to handicraft production. The water management system has been designed and modernised at communal level to maintain agricultural production and protect the population against flooding. However, waterways have been diverted from their original purpose. Some waterways and water holes originally intended for irrigation and agricultural runoff or for fish farming have been turned into sewers by handicraft and industrial companies who tend to set up close by. Since the water system is unable to separate agricultural run-off from industrial wastewater, pollutants produced by craft villages are discharged in the waterways and end up on agricultural land.

136In some craft villages (e.g. papermakers, metalworkers, textile workers, etc.), water is very heavily polluted with heavy metals, acids and coliform bacteria (DiGregorio M. and al., 1999). This threatens the productivity of paddy fields as well as the inhabitants’health, while spreading to neighbouring areas. Smoke from ceramic producers’coal-fired kilns scatter dust particles hazardous to the health of the villagers. Small rural businesses pollute less than large factories because they use recycled raw materials that require less chemicals for processing and consume less energy. They do, however, cause severe damage to human health and the environment because of their large numbers and the fact that they are geographically dispersed and located in village centres.

137Craft activities are imperilled by the growing numbers of family-based, individual businesses lacking the capital to invest in wastewater treatment, by the shortage of space to extend production and adapt it to human health concerns, and the absence of co-operative or community-based authorities able to take a comprehensive approach to dealing with waste. Some water-thirsty businesses (e.g. metalworking and papermaking companies) have decided to sink artificial wells, a practice which is liable to cause subsidence, knowing that the Delta is already prone to flooding. Meanwhile, large paper manufacturing companies have had to set up very expensive closed circuit water recycling systems, as artesian wells were no longer sufficient. As a result, they discharge very little wastewater in the canals and pollute irrigation waters far less than small companies. Small-scale artisans cannot afford to build chimneystacks high enough to disperse harmful smoke.

138Since local People’s Committees have no territorial development plan, problems may emerge in the short term as a result of unco-ordinated individual strategies carried out by the wealthiest artisans and of the densification of built-up areas and their expansion onto sites prone to flooding: congestion problems may appear due to a poorly-adapted road system and flooding problems could be exacerbated during the monsoon. In addition, social problems may develop among villages and between craftspeople and expropriated farmers. This could weaken productive cohesion within clusters.

139Communal People’s Committees lack the political or financial power to manage areas in the process of industrialisation. Regulation concerning the management of industrial areas is not enforced and traditional laws on environmental protection are unable to deal with the overload of waste and raw materials, which is choking public space.

Labellisation of craft products

140With the growth in numbers of craft villages and an increase in production volume, competition has intensified between villages specialising in the same sector. Many artisans resort to reducing wages or using low quality raw materials to bring costs down, at the expense of the quality of the finished product. Vạn Phúc (Itinerary no4) is a case in point. During the feudal era, the craftspeople of this cluster attained a very high level of technical competence. Part of their production was used to pay tribute to China or sold to the Hanoian aristocracy, which compelled the artisans to maintain certain standards of quality. Today, synthetic silk thread is widely used in the workshops. No quality-label could protect the few master artisans who still manufacture pure silk. This lowest common denominator approach threatens to mar the village’s reputation. The same problem exists in the lacquerware village of Hạ Thái (Itinerary no5). Synthetic resins have replaced sõn ta from Phú Thọ.

141In addition, intellectual property rights are not being respected. Some dynamic villages have succeeded in developing activities that had originally been initiated by their neighbours. Unable to adapt to the new production and marketing context, the latter saw their share of the market snatched from under their noses. Some of the craftspeople of Đồng Kỵ are proud of their daring and entrepreneurship and boldly claim to have “stolen the craft” of the carpenters, wood carvers and mother-of-pearl inlay artists from neighbouring villages. A further example is the famous ceramics village of Bát Tràng, which is very well integrated in marketing network and seeks to sell new types of pottery. A number of artisans-cum-merchants from Bát Tràng sell ‘Phù Lãng’ style decorative pottery, while Phù Lãng is experiencing great difficulty selling its output. They buy clay in Phù Lãng and hire craftspeople from this village to produce Phù Lãng style ceramics, then claim that such objects are made in Bát Tràng and sell them for three or four times more than in their village of origin.

142Protecting know-how and product quality is vital if innovation is to be encouraged among the more creative and bolder artisans. The idea of quality-labelling certain craft products is beginning to catch on and already interests the Trade Departments of provincial People’s Committees. However, this project is encountering the many obstacles inherent in most craftspeople’s low level of qualification, the fact that production is generally small-scale and the shortterm benefit of choosing quantity over quality.

143In order to register a quality-label, specifications must be met: technical procedures and quality criteria have to be complied with. Artisans who have mastered these techniques must be able to check the work of their colleagues within the framework of a producers’association. However, such associations have yet to be created. The few existing associations of lacquer artisans, paper manufacturers or furniture makers often bring together competing craftspeople. In addition, quality assessment of the finished product and the monitoring of specifications required for granting a quality-label can be quite difficult to make, as the origins of raw materials can vary and the production process is fragmented among multiple workshops. Some talented artisans believe that the quality of work should be improved first and quality-labels granted later. This is a long-term project, as the awareness of artisans must first be raised.


144The Upper Delta is known as the birthplace of ancestral Vietnamese society. A rich cultural and architectural heritage nestles in its villages. This heritage survived the country’s political and economic vicissitudes and forms the cultural basis of North Vietnamese village society’s tangible and intangible heritage.

145This densely populated plain suffers from a shortage of space. Villages are bunched together on hillocks or on rivers’natural levees, which protect them from flooding. They are, in some ways, very urbanised, but their layout ultimately responds to religious concerns and mostly to the requirements of feng shui. Traditional houses built around a lush and leafy courtyard are protected from outsiders’gaze by brick walls and staggered along a web of labyrinthine concrete or brick-paved narrow alleyways. Beautiful old houses remain, in spite of the real estate frenzy of the nouveaux riches in busier villages. They stand as symbols of the bygone affluence enjoyed by lineages of wealthy landowners and talented craftspeople.

146This architectural heritage (traditional old houses, alleyways, pagodas or chùa, communal houses or đình, temples and mausoleums) has largely been preserved, although during the collectivist era many religious buildings were diverted from their original function and turned into administrative buildings or simply destroyed. The Ministry of Culture has set up rehabilitation programmes for the most majestic đình and village associations look after the preservation of pagodas. A revival of religious fervour has surfaced since the ban on religious practices was lifted in the 1990s. Village identity is valued once more and festivals in honour of craft ancestors and guardian (tutelary) spirits are organised. Festivals revive the history of the villages and, in a context of economic openness and competition, serve to rekindle solidarity among artisans and among the craft villages’lineages. This rich cultural heritage remains very much alive and is seeking to be recognised and preserved. Representations have been made to this end to UNESCO.


Revival of cultural heritage since Đổi Mới

147Intangible cultural heritage includes certain forms of oral performance (quan họ, love duets from Bắc Ninh province, Itinerary no1), performing arts (chèo theatre and water puppets), social practices, rituals and festive events (festivals and games). The main outlets for these forms of expression are the spring festivals and celebrations of craft ancestors.

Festivals and the worship of crafts’ patron saints

148Festivals are generally held after the Lunar New Year, as a folk song declares that:

The first month is for enjoyment
The second for gambling
The third for festivals!

149Since the 1990s, local elites have revived ancient rituals celebrating patron saints and guardian spirits, which had been banned in the 1940s. State interference in the cultural life of the village, authorising or banning such events, is not a new occurrence.

“During the reign of Lê Thánh Tông, village deities were removed and replaced by heroic figures from the historical hall of fame. This marked the onset of constant intervention by mandarinal authorities in the political, economical and cultural life of villages” (Papin P. & Tessier O., 2002).

150Village festivals take place to render homage to a guardian spirit or other protective genie of the village community. The guardian spirit may be a historical or mythical figure who has greatly contributed to the construction of the village, helped the country fight off foreign invasion or taught villagers a craft. A common man – even a beggar or a thief – who died at a sacred hour might become such a spirit. The same applies to illegitimate children or incestuous couples. Authorities tend to view such practices with suspicion, especially if the spirits are not commendable characters. But villagers respect their guardian spirits regardless of their morals. Poverty and prosperity, good and bad harvests, health and protection against epidemics, all rely on the protection of the thần thánh hoàng (literally ‘genie of ramparts’).

“In a village whose name we will keep quiet, the village spirit is notoriously lecherous. When a woman walks past his altar, she must bend over and lift her skirt to keep him happy” (Nguyễn Văn Ký, 1995).

151When the state manages to enforce its decisions and makes the village adopt a hero from the national hall of fame as its guardian spirit, the beloved ‘immoral’ spirit will slip in among his cohort of servants. This is one of the reasons for the secrecy surrounding the cult of guardian spirits. The diversity of such spirits points to the idiosyncrasy of each village of the Delta. “There are in theory as many spirits as there are villages” (Nguyễn Văn Ký, 1995). Nguyễn Văn Huyền counted about 770 guardian spirits in Bắc Ninh Province in the 1940s.

“Worshipping thần thánh hoàng has become a structuring element for villages. This form of worship was responsible for solving the tensions and contradictions that emerged in the 15th century between the requirements for the construction of a Confucian and centralised state, able to exert its authority on the smallest and remotest village, and the village communities’aspirations for autonomy. This contradiction was political, cultural and religious in nature. Thần thánh hoàng worship was a form of compromise between village custom and state regulation, local cults and official Confucianism, between the autonomy of rural communities and the imperative of national unity upheld by the Imperial Court, whose objective was to promote the advent of the centralised state in Vietnam” (Đặng Thế Đại, 2002).

152Festivals are an opportunity to reawaken the common memory of the villages, to reactivate solidarity among craftspeople and among lineages and to bring together a diaspora of artisans, who were sometimes dispersed around the country (as is the case in Đại Bái). This mixture of ritual life with the world of human actions provided a context for sanctions contained in village charters and an arena for competition in the local status hierarchy. It was also the time when village trade secrets, their de facto monopolies over particular products and techniques, were enforced (DiGregorio M., 2001).

153Out of approximately one hundred festivals held in the Delta (see the calendar of major festivals in the Appendices, p. 309), half take place during the lunar month of February, fifteen in January, after Lunar New Year (Tết) and thirteen between March and April. There are few festivals during the lunar months of May and June and only a handful in November.

154According to this data, only about twenty festivals are held in homage to craft ancestors. Many villages have lost their historical roots (especially crafts concerned with the manufacture of goods for everyday life such as wickerwork). A third of these festivities is dedicated to guardian spirits, mountain and water spirits (or genies), mythical figures such as Lạc Long Quân, the father of the Vietnamese people, another third to princes and princesses or to generals such as Trần Hýng Ðạo (1228-1300), who victoriously fought China. The most famous pagodas organise annual festivals.

155Many of these festivals (40%) are concentrated in Hà Nội Province, which shows that these traditional cults are upheld in spite of urbanisation. Hà Tây comes second with 19%, Bắc Ninh third (14%) and the remainder are distributed among the other provinces of the Delta.

156Village festivals are often a harmonised blend mixing remnants of native animism with elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Vietnamese people believe deities, guardian spirits and evil genies live in the rivers, mountains, rocks, trees, wind and rain. Animistic beliefs are at the core of Vietnamese religion: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism often provide the varnish.

157Celebrations and ceremonies mark the beginning of production cycles: the opening of the hunting season or crop planting season, the end of the harvest, etc. It is the time for a return to the primaeval order of the universe that prevailed when life first appeared on earth. Festivals and ceremonies take us closer to the dawn of mankind. They are a simulacrum of creation and allow Man to free himself from the constraints of society. They disrupt habits, customs and taboos, and generate chaos, thus destroying barriers and induce harmony within the community.

158Festival time transcends daily life and the commonplace, allowing Man to inhabit a dimension of time beyond the present reality. However, people reproduce their production activities and everyday behaviour in this particular context. There are scenes of extravagant feasting and outrageous drinking bouts, of flirting so stylised that they enter the realm of the symbolic (Hữu Ngọc, 1999).

159Festivals sometimes take place over several days and include two types of activities: ceremony and entertainment. The ceremony includes processions of the revered spirits or ancestors to sacred places (đình, pagodas and temples), and rituals inspired by Confucianism (ancestor worship, worship of objects such as the three sacrificial animals, offerings of fruit and flowers, and burning of incense sticks and votive paper). The entertainment part of the festival focuses on fun and amusement: folk entertainments such as human chess, cock fighting, rice-cooking contests, swing games and performances of folk opera. Water rituals are held in villages located on the banks of rivers and lakes: saints’ statues are washed, the gods are invoked to bring rain and water puppet shows are staged.

The symbolic nature of games and pastimes

160In the past, entertainment was meant to increase efficiency at work and generate trust. Work occasionally had to be interrupted, production levels could be very poor and disasters could strike repeatedly: sometimes, there was no choice but to rest (Ðạo Hýng, 1991).

161Well-defined social groups usually partake in village games: players must conform to certain traditional requirements reflecting social hierarchy. Some games are only open to unmarried boys and girls – as the dance symbolises sexual intercourse – others to fifty year-olds (mộc tất) or other specific age groups. Some games are relics of forms of collective marriage that no longer exist: this is the case of a boat race held in Ðào Xá (Vĩnh Phúc Province). The two boats decorated with dragon and bird heads symbolising yin and yang are reminiscent of weddings between two groups belonging to separate clans. The most visible traces of this custom are giáp, an idiosyncratic trait of Vietnamese village communities. Giáp are subdivisions of a hamlet grouping male village members according to the area they live in. They no longer exist but their role endures, especially for the organisation of festivals. Games tighten bonds between existing social groups (age groups, gender groups). Age groups, personal history and differences between social and ethnic groups all have a bearing on the cultural role and contents of the game.

162Games also reflect age-old beliefs that persist today. Spring festivals are held primarily to solicit an auspicious year for harvests, associated with beliefs concerning fertility. Such beliefs manifest themselves through the idea of universal rebirth and are expressed in the worship of sexual intercourse or genital organs. This is linked to linga and yoni worship, traces of which can be found in the veneration of the ‘mother-stone’ or in the custom of rubbing the Buddha’s head while making a wish to become pregnant.

163Sexual emblems were long ago not recognized by official religion in Vietnam as they went against the spirit of Confucianism, but traces remain in village festivals. The custom of turning out the lights to allow men and women to banter and frolic and even indulge in sexual acts was practised at certain festivals: this ritual was celebrated during the festival at Nga Hoàng (Yên Giả Commune, Quế Võ District, Bắc Ninh Province), from the 6th to the 15th day of the 1stlunar month. See p. 309 with calendar of events). The worship of natural phenomena (e.g. sun, moon, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, earth, etc.) originated in beliefs relating to fertility and in turn gave rise to animist beliefs. Many of the games mimic the trajectories of the stars and planets, or other natural phenomena (Hữu Ngọc, 1999).

164Boat races are a ritual associated with the Water Festival, which is celebrated by all the rice farming and fishing populations of Southeast Asia. According to Chinese records, these celebrations first appeared on the southern reaches of the Yang Tse River. Boat races are associated with the worship of the Water Spirit, celebrated at the start of the rainy season or flood season (from the 3rd to the 5th moon) – which is also the season of thunderstorms – and at the start of the season when floodwaters recede (end of the 8th – beginning of the 9th moon). The festival summons rainstorms, which are good for the rice. Other boat races mark the end of autumn.

165The same applies to kite games. A Diều (kite) represents a vulture. In Southeast Asian mythology, the bird of prey is the opposite symbol to that of the fish and the water snake, which represent rain and floods. Kite festivals take place towards the end of autumn (in the 9th month) when the high water season ends. Birds also symbolise the sun, whose rays dispel the darkness of the flood season: this game is related to former sun worshipping rituals among the Việt people.

166Pastimes such as games with swings and tug-of-war appear to be purely popular entertainment. Yet in the context of ritual celebrations, they are reminiscent of the cyclical movement of seasons imparting harmony to the cosmos: the swing carries a couple adorned with flowing pink silk belts, following a predetermined trajectory and its motion evokes the cycle of heavenly bodies rotating endlessly through the universe.

Folk opera or chèo

This theatrical genre emerged from the sacred and profane folk dances and songs of the Red River Delta. In the 11th century, it included folk performance and mime. Later on, short scenes describing religious narratives were added. The genre reached maturity in the 15th and 16th centuries. It developed in the 17th and 18th centuries in parallel with nôm folk novels; distinctive examples of this genre have been kept to this day. Unlike tuồng, a classical theatrical art for the aristocracy, chèo depicts rural life and gives a voice to the peasants. The most common theme concerns the sorry fate of women under the feudal regime; in some of the stories, they rebel against the system. Satirical buffoons also castigate feudal society.

Troops perform in the courtyard of the communal house during folk festivals. The sedge mat serving as a stage can represent the earth and the skies, rivers and mountains. Actors and musicians sit on either side of the mat and sing in unison. The audience stands around the stage. Drums feature as time-honoured musical instruments. Spectators and audience often hail each other. Improvisation plays an important role as chèo tells stories through speech, songs, dances and music.

Some famous plays from the classical repertoire play to a full courtyard (so to speak), such as Lýu Bình and Dýõng Lễ’s famous play advocating loyalty, which tells the story of a friendship between two schoolmates taking the exam to become mandarins. In the past, artists were mere penniless peasants who had to provide their own costumes, musical instruments and other expenses for the performance.

At the beginning of the 20th century, chèo made its appearance in the city. It was actually performed on a stage with sets. It was adapted to suit the taste of city dwellers. Modernised chèo borrows from classical opera, adopts westernised songs and deals with fashionable themes. Later came Nguyễn Đình Nghi's (1925-1945) updated chèo style, less eclectic and inspired from new realist theatre. Following the 1945 revolution, modern chèo mostly developed in the 1960s (20 professional theatre troupes performed traditional, historical and folk themes as well as modern ones).

Folk opera and water puppets are pure products of the civilisation of the Red River Delta. Nam Định is one of the traditional water puppetry provinces. Yet chèo is a more refined art form. Its plays are funny, lyrical and always have a happy ending.

(Hữu Ngọc, 1997 and 2002)

Water puppets or rối nýớc

This is an art form originating from Nam Định Province in the Red River Delta. It is part of the rituals used to invoke the rains. The puppets were originally associated with fertility cults before they became village entertainment during festivals. Water pavilions or thủy đình, such as those in Thầy Pagoda (Master’s Pagoda, Itinerary no9), Gióng Temple (Phù Ðổng, Gia Lâm, Hà Nội) or Chàng Sõn (Hà Tây) were permanent constructions. However, during most tours, puppeteers’rooms were built using light materials, such as bamboo and wood, which could easily be carried to the countless ponds around the various villages. The puppeteers’room in Thầy Pagoda is the oldest one to have remained intact.

When the show opens, little Tễu (the buffoon) presents the programme with the following prologue: “I am Tễu, of heavenly origin, exiled on earth for having stolen a peach from the Immortals; as the affairs of this world are tortuous and appalling, I slosh about and handle my puppets as best I can”. After this introduction, the performance kicked off with fireworks and firecrackers – that is, until the ban on firecrackers; they have since been replaced with drum rolls.

As in chèo, performances are full of imagination, humour, laughter and satire. The buffoon is a central character. Fairies dance to the sound of the flute, dragons spit fire and phoenixes glide amorously on the water. These plays deal with village life: buffalo fights, fishing and craftmaking. Like chèo, they find their inspiration in Vietnamese history and classical Chinese literature.

Generally speaking, theatre troupes – there are 15 of them in the Red River Delta – have more or less similar founding histories. They have a craft ancestor, the most ancient being the 11th century Buddhist monk Từ Đạo Hạnh. He is associated with the founding of Thầy Pagoda (Itinerary no9).

Before 1945, water puppet troupes gave performances in their own as well as surrounding village during festivals. They belonged to a guild and puppeteers had to observe a very strict set of rules, especially concerning trade secrets. Some troupes, such as Chàng Sõn’s (Hà Tây) handled puppets with strings, while others used bamboo sticks. Troupes are unrelated and troupe members are usually part of the same extended family. One half of troupe members are puppeteers and the other musicians, singers, compères, plus a leader. In addition to performances, some of the troupe members also make puppets. Performances ceased during both wars. When they started again, they widened their scope to include cities: Hà Nội became a favoured spot to attend these shows. Two theatres were built for this purpose and became stepping-stones to the international scene. Four troupes perform in villages in Hà Tây, one in Bắc Ninh and another in Hà Nội.
(Museum of Ethnology, 2005)
(Nguyễn Huy Hồng, 2006)

Rice-cooking contests

During Tết, a number of villages in northern and central Vietnam hold rice-cooking contests. Villagers in Chuông village (Itinerary no7) organise separate competitions for boys and girls. Female participants must cook rice on the ground while carrying a six to seven month old baby from another family on their hip. They must comfort the infant when he or she cries. At the same time, they must prevent a toad from jumping out of a chalk circle drawn around them. The contest is made all the more difficult by spectators-especially children-taking every opportunity to tease the baby. The contest for boys is no less exacting. Each boy must stand ready with all the necessary items (rice, water, matches and firewood) on a light boat moored at the edge of the pond. At a given signal he paddles with his hands to the opposite shore, where a row of pots sit on tripods. He must stay in his now unmoored boat while cooking the rice on the shore. The slightest loss of balance tosses him over into the water.


Players divide into two teams and face each other along a bamboo rope. A red piece of cloth marks the middle of the rope, which is above a line drawn with lime in the dust. After a signal from the referee, players tug the rope as hard as they can and attempt to pull the red cloth to their side. Eventually one team loses strength and lets go of the rope; the audience cheers the other team as winners. In Tích Sõn village (Vĩnh Phúc Province) a men-only tug-of-war is held on the third day of the first lunar month. Organisers arrange the rope in an east-west direction, evoking the trajectory of the sun. Older men stand to the east, younger men to the west. Over three matches, the team that compels the other group to take three steps forward is the winner. According to traditional belief, if the eastern (older) team wins, the villagers will have bumper crops throughout the year.

In Hữu Chấp village (Bắc Ninh), the tug-of-war takes place on the fourth day of Tết. Players form two teams of unmarried boys and girls. The boys represent the dýõng force (yang) and the dry season, while the girls represent the âm force (yin) and the rainy season. Although the boys are frequently stronger than the girls, the girls often “win” the tug-of-war so that the rainy season can outdo the dry season and the harvests that year will be good.

(Vietnam Cultural Window, 2003)


167Traditional North Vietnamese civilisation is deeply rooted in village culture. The seat of intellectual life is not located in cities but among scholars living in their home villages in the countryside. Religious buildings such as pagodas and temples are dispersed throughout the countryside. Unlike in Western countries, most of the Delta’s cultural heritage (80%) is scattered around the countryside.

168Villages used to fulfil an important political role, which is why buildings of high architectural value were erected there, such as communal houses or đình. When the Lý dynasty transferred the capital of Vietnam from Hoa Lý to Thãng Long, the golden age of pagoda building began, with the finest, in Kinh Bắc (a province in the North equivalent to present-day Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang Provinces,).

“The buildings that can still be seen in villages today (communal houses, pagodas, temples, houses for ancestor worship, shrines to the “prince propagator of literature”, etc.) all originate from the great centralising and mandarinal Confucian tradition and offer little insight into what popular culture may actually have been like” (Papin P. and Tessier O., 2002).

169Village gates are generally made of brick and often lavishly decorated, a reminder of the ancient power held by villages and of the cohesion of lineages, well protected behind the bamboo hedge surrounding the village and shielding it from invaders. These gates are part of the landscape of the Red River Delta, in the same way as ancient trees, lakes and ponds, and bridges across the many waterways surrounding the villages. On some bridges, small temples are dedicated to spirits of the land.

170The Lý Dynasty, contrary to its predecessors (Đinh and Lê), attempted to reduce Chinese influence on Vietnamese culture. Their efforts resulted in an artistic burgeoning whose significance has not yet been fully ascertained; its most representative relics are associated with the worship of the four Buddhist mother goddesses.

171Political, cultural and religious edifices fall into various categories:

172Pagodas (chùa), dedicated to the worship of Buddha, also serve as residences for monks. In the 11th century, pagodas were very large and most of them were built by the state, as Buddhism was then the state religion. They are classified into three subcategories:

  • State pagodas (Đại danh lam) were also used by the king to stay in during his travels. They were built away from villages, often on a hill.
  • Medium-sized sites, regional pagodas (Trung danh lam).
  • Small sites, generally village pagodas (Tiểu danh lam), or stupas (monks’ tombs).

173Subsequently – after the commune reached a higher and more complex stage of development – pagodas also became the place where village regulations were recorded. Among these were records of fees collected to fund collective activities in the commune. These records were kept for tax collection purposes. Those people on whom was conferred the title hậu (making them eligible to carry out sacrifices to Buddha) were worshipped in the communal house or pagoda with the consent of the commune (Phạm Thị Thùy Vinh, 2003).

174These pagodas usually have a refined architecture and are often inside a garden.

175Communal houses (đình): it symbolises the power of villages. This is where the village’s guardian or tutelary spirit is worshipped, as well as being a meeting place where day-to-day business is discussed (e.g. taxes, statutory labour (corvée), land distribution and the organisation of festivals). Đình are usually majestic buildings, luxuriously decorated inside with sculptures and engravings and with heavy wooden beams adorned with bas-relief. In the 17th century, the construction of a whole series of communal houses in an elaborate architectural style was evidence that village structure had become tight-knit and well regulated. The communal house was the site where the entire cultural life of the village had developed: tuồng (traditional theatrical opera), chèo (folk opera), music, sculpture, painting, decoration, handicrafts, water puppetry, dancing, singing and martial arts.

176In accordance with the rules of feng shui, most đình were built facing a lake or pond or alongside dykes, facing the river. Many đình can be found along the dykes of the River Ðáy (Hà Tây Province), which runs through several of the craft villages presented in this book.

177Temples (miếu): this is the place to worship deities providing protection and succour to the people of the village. They are much more modest than communal houses and pagodas in size and architecture. They were mostly built as a single room with a simple structure, except for the worship of kings or high officials.

178A whole hierarchy of edifices covering various functions can be found within the villages and are emblematic of the latter’s wealth throughout history. Many of them are situated in the villages of traders, mandarins, intellectuals and artisan.

179Shrine (từ): this is a temple for public worship by the entire village, built with a covering roof and an altar for offerings. The worshipped deity may have been a village benefactor or a legendary figure thought to have helped his people.

180Public memorial (từ chỉ): this is where village benefactors are worshipped under the gaze of the clan lineage of the person being worshipped. A public memorial was a plot of land surrounded by a wall, but without a hall for offerings.

181Ancestral hall (từ ðýờng) or (nhà thờ họ): this is where clan members worship their ancestors. Large clans, particularly those with many officials and successful graduates, built ancestral halls. Ancestor worship and the cult of bloodline relations gradually became more developed. In villages where high officials lived who made financial contributions to local public affairs, public memorials, living memorials and mausoleums were built in their honour. Many of them can be found in the more affluent craft villages.

182Literary memorial (văn chỉ): this is where successful graduates from the village are worshipped. It is established by the village literary association.

183Mausoleum/officials’tombs: lăng mộ.

184Watch post (điếm): these appeared when the village became fairly developed in its organisation. Each alley or giáp would have its own watch post, which was used as a resting place and shelter by local people during the day, as an encampment for night watch militia and as a checkpoint for outsiders who wished to enter further into the alley or giáp.

185Stelae could also be found in places dedicated to everyday activities, such as bridges and markets. Their purpose was to inform and remind passers-by of the origins of each bridge and market and to pay homage to the benefactors who had made a contribution to the village each time a bridge or a market was constructed or repaired.

186The aforementioned elements of religious and architectural heritage feature in the 10 itineraries that follow. In the most prestigious villages, their location is indicated on the maps for easier access.


Growing demand for cultural tourism

Tourism supply needs to diversify

187Despite considerable and continual growth in the number of foreign tourists (from 250,000 in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2007), Vietnam is currently having trouble diversifying its supply of tourism products and generating repeat visits. Research has shown that foreign tourists do not return to Vietnam a second time once they have toured the main sites. For several years, products proposed to tourists have not evolved: always the same tours, the same sites visited, the same guides, while the tourism sector is booming. We are witnessing a decline in the quality of proposed itineraries. Demand is certainly there, but supply is not responding adequately. Attempts to develop rural tourism in craft villages are gaining ground and projects have been initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, but these experiments remain patchy.

188Through lack of knowledge of places to visit and how to find them and scarce on-site tourist facilities in a country that was long closed to foreigners, only very few craft villages such as Bát Tràng (ceramics) and Vạn Phúc (silk), situated less than 20 km from the capital, are regularly visited.

189The Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism seeks through rural tourism to preserve and promote the handicraft skills and the architectural and cultural heritage of some villages. Through the “Itinerary of Pottery Villages in the Red River Delta” programme (see p. 56), it is starting to become involved in heritage promotion. This Ministry is aware of the importance of involving villagers in the development of cultural tourism programmes. Craft villages may be a new destination for tourism, yet this requires development strategies to be determined and infrastructure to be built (e.g. local museums, handicraft shops, on-site tourist facilities). Local tour guides need to be trained and craftspeople should be involved in such projects. At the provincial level, a policy for the promotion of craft villages is being drafted. For the time being, its remit is restricted to financing road construction work and basic infrastructure.

Why contact with foreigners is in the interest of many artisans

190Within the context of Vietnam opening up to the outside world, many craftspeople would like to promote their crafts and make them better known to foreigners. This would enable them to gain better insights into foreign tastes, create direct links with potential clients from the West or from Asia (Japan especially, a major consumer of Vietnamese handicraft products) and bypass the middlemen. They believe that an effective way of attracting tourists into the villages would be to build showrooms to display their wares and establish museums recounting the history and technical development of their craft. However, a lack of training among guides, scarce knowledge of the heritage of these villages and an absence of itineraries of interesting places to visit limit access to such destinations for Vietnamese and international tourists.

A shared interest in craft villages

191Among the various foreign communities living in Vietnam and residents of Hà Nội, there is a real interest in the rich heritage of craft villages, villages that clearly supply the many handicraft shops in the capital city. The Vietnamese press echoes this demand almost daily, with numerous articles on villages to illustrate their economic and cultural interest. Vietnamese and foreign schools, expatriate associations and small travel agencies frequently organise visits to some of the better-known villages around Hà Nội. They would like to diversify these visits and not rely on inadequately trained “guides”.

Spreading the word about cultural tourism

192The concept of “quality tourism” was defined by the Tourism Agreement adopted by ASEAN member States during the Phnom Penh Summit (4/11/2002). According to this agreement, member States ensure “quality tourism” by following the following directives:

193• Encouraging all levels of government and local communities to carry out programmes to ensure the preservation, conservation and promotion of the natural, cultural and historical heritage of member states.

194• Encouraging visitors to learn, respect and help preserve the natural, cultural and historical heritage of member states.

195• Encouraging, where appropriate, the adoption of environmental management standards and certification programmes for sustainable tourism and for assessing and monitoring the impact of tourism on local communities, culture and nature, especially in environmentally and culturally sensitive areas.

196• Promoting the use of environmentally sound technologies to preserve and conserve the natural heritage, the ecosystems and biodiversity and to protect endangered flora and fauna as well as micro-organisms.

197• Strengthening measures to prevent tourism-related threats on and exploitation of cultural heritage and natural resources.

198• Taking stern measures to prevent tourism-related abuse and exploitation of people, particularly women and children (Nguyễn Kim Dung, in: Musée royal de Mariemont, 2006).

The Museum of Ethnology: a living museum on craft villages7

  • 7 (Nguyễn Văn Huy, 2006)

199The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology established in Hà Nội in Cầu Giấy (Paper Bridge) District was inaugurated in 1997 in partnership with the Museum of Mankind in Paris. It is dedicated to the study of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam through the display of 25,000 objects taken from everyday life. It offers an insight into the country’s diversity through exhibits of traditional costumes, musical instruments, jewellery and weapons, and more importantly, through living exhibitions dedicated to everyday life, especially that of traditional craft villages.

200The museum’s priorities include preserving know-how and taking part in the development of traditional craft villages by disseminating knowledge on the cultural heritage of techniques passed on from generation to generation within a specific village community. It aims to educate young people by organising workshops. In 2003 and 2004, four craftspeople from Phù Lãng held pottery courses at the museum for schoolchildren aged 10 to 14, in partnership with Unesco.

201The museum is seeking new approaches to participating in the preservation of craftsmanship and traditional societies and to giving artisans the means to adapt to the modern world. New methods have to be found to bring the reality of village life to the public and to make politicians and future generations aware of the significance of such know-how. Exhibitions are organised in co-operation with the communities concerned: they are involved in the choice of objects and aspects of everyday life to be presented. They also collect information, as in the case of the Photovoice Project

202• Permanent exhibits on handicrafts

203- Some of the rooms on the ground floor of the museum are dedicated to the culture and handicraft techniques of the Việt people.

204- Pottery is presented through the example of Phù Lãng village: village history, society, kiln architecture and original production techniques of this craft centre currently undergoing radical transformations.

205- Wickerwork and conical hat making in Làng Chuông: life-size models of wicker artisans, videos presenting the different techniques, wickerwork items and history of the craft.

206• Living culture in the spotlight in temporary exhibitions: village dwellers in Hà Nội

207- Two traditional village dwellings from the Red River Delta were built in the museum garden. For the past few years, they have been used for temporary exhibitions on crafts. Over the course of several months, the artisans of a given village display their production and skills and present the history of their village and craft. Such ‘living museums’ are of great interest for both visitors and craftspeople, as the latter are able to bring to a wider audience crafts that may be on the verge of becoming extinct. Such experiments should be repeated in the villages; they could potentially attract many visitors.

208- Ðại Yên medicinal plant village is integrated within the city of Hà Nội, south of West Lake. In May 2004, artisans presented the different aspects of their craft (techniques and plant production) – local plant production still endures in this highly urbanised village and land speculation has not yet been able to stamp out this original and intensive agricultural production. They also described their everyday life using posters, photographs and plants. Craft products from the village could also be bought.

209- The villages of Bắc Ninh Province specialising in the manufacture of paper and paper goods (prints, masks and toys), Dýõng Ổ, Ðông Hồ and Tú Khê, were the subject of an exhibition. Posters presented different aspects of the life of these villages, the history of their crafts, production techniques and their future prospects, as well as some background information and biographies of some of its talented craftspeople. Most are elderly, a potential cause for concern for more vulnerable activities, considering the likelihood that these skills may not be passed on to others.

210- In January 2002, an exhibition on Cửa Vạn fishing village in Hạ Long Bay, which consists in a group of floating houses, tells the peculiar story of a people who became sedentary by living on water. Artisan from Cửa Vạn demonstrated the manufacture of bamboo boats and basket fish traps.

211- Craft people from Vạn Phúc silk village (Hà Tây), introduced their village, their history, their traditional and innovative techniques and various types of silk.

212- In December 2008, two water puppet villages, Hồng Phong (Hải Dýõng) and Ðông Các (Thái Bình), presented the history of their villages and their troupes, their organisation and the way in which know-how is passed down through generations.

213• The Photovoice Project in Đại Bái village

214Over the course of six months (from December 2002 to June 2003), in Đại Bái village, 18 villagers learned how to use a camera and began a Photovoice Project. Photovoice is a method that gives local people the opportunity to document and express their unique knowledge and concerns. In Đại Bái, craftsmen accustomed to holding mallets for beating metal took cameras and shared their experience with VME researchers. In their photos, they introduce fellow craftsmen, traditional knowledge, tools, materials and skills. Craftmaking is changing in Đại Bái and many photos and interviews show the difficulties and challenges villagers face today. This project was supported by the Japanese Agency for Development (JICA) in co-operation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

215Craftspeople created approximately 3,000 photographs and participated in many interviews. These documents are preserved for the benefit of researchers and anyone with an interest in crafts, as well as for future generations. The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, in collaboration with local people, organized three photographic exhibitions based on photographs taken by artisans. The first two exhibitions were organised in the localities where its ‘research subjects’ live, making them all the more significant.

A cultural itinerary through traditional pottery villages

This itinerary focuses on six pottery villages of the Red River Delta that combine traditional craftsmanship and architecture related to pottery (kilns, specific habitat, typical village architecture, etc.):
Bát Tràng (Hà Nội Province);
Phù Lãng (Bắc Ninh Province);
Thổ Hà (Bắc Giang Province);
Chu Ðậu and Cậy (Hải Dýõng Province);
Đông Triều (Quảng Ninh Province).

The itinerary is reinforced by visits to a number of museums where prestigious Vietnamese ceramics collections are displayed: Vietnam History Museum, Vietnam Museum of Fine Art, both located in Hà Nội, the exhibition hall of the archaeological remains of Dýõng village ceramics kilns (Bắc Ninh Province) and Hải Dýõng Museum, where Chu Ðậu ceramics collections are exhibited.

This tour is organised by the Cultural Heritage Department of the French speaking Community in Belgium, the Royal Museum of Mariemont, and the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Vietnam. Its objective is to stimulate cultural tourism:

• Bringing heritage tourism concerning village culture to a non-specialist audience (marketing, setting up an information centre on the heritage of village culture and the cultural itinerary).
• State support through investment in museums, shops selling local handicraft, training villagers as tour guides, etc.
• Involving local populations in the organisation of cultural tourism programmes to improve their control over the promotion of their heritage and avoid the detrimental social consequences of mass tourism.

The tour is inspired by the European ‘Cultural Itinerary’ programme. Its central idea is to show a founding cultural heritage in a visible and recognised manner with a journey through space and time. Such cultural itineraries in Europe are the Mozart Route, the Viking Routes, the European Jewish Heritage routes, Architecture Without Borders, etc. Today, this programme is co-ordinated by the European Institute of Cultural Itineraries, whose headquarters are in Luxemburg.

The team launching this project hopes that it will be an example leading to the implementation of other cultural itineraries in Vietnam (Nguyễn Kim Dung, Musée royal de Mariemont, 2006).

A survey was led jointly by the project’s team members in order to assess the capacity of the six chosen sites. One of the main criteria was accessibility, followed by landscape on the way to the site and on the site itself and finally the site’s upkeep. Architectural aspects are examined from three different perspectives: the first aspect concerns residential buildings, followed by buildings where cultural life was played out – in villages of the Red River Delta, this mostly consists in edifices embodying spiritual life and local polity: communal houses, pagodas and the occasional dynastic temple, which today might be dedicated to President Hồ Chí Minh. The third architectural aspect concerns structures associated with ceramics productions – in other words, kilns.

Production techniques and know-how are part and parcel of intangible heritage. But besides these categories, intangible heritage has only been observed in very specific instances, such as the quan họ school in Bắc Ninh and during local festivals in Thổ Hà. Other festivals are mentioned for the record by the team who implemented the cultural itinerary.

Bát Tràng and Ðông Triều alone have on-site tourist facilities. There is currently no tourist infrastructure, however basic, nor are there any local projects concerned with protecting and promoting cultural heritage or with developing tourist infrastructure. The present situation of sites selected as part of the cultural itinerary varies widely. However, in the course of the survey, it became obvious that both local leaders and craftspeople were eager to use tourism as a means to develop economic activity and improve their community’s standard of living.

Even though most of the people interviewed may not yet have a clear idea of the potential problems tourism can bring – whether or not it is termed “quality tourism’ – all of them stated their intention of restoring monuments and preserving traditions intact (Noppe C. & Martinot D.).

The team has until now organised several events and written a number of articles:
• An exhibition titled “Potters of the Red River” at the Royal Museum of Mariemont in Belgium from 23rd November 2006 to 25th February 2007. A book was published in 2006 for this exhibition: “Meeting the Potters of the Red River Delta, A Cultural Itinerary”, edited by Nguyễn Kim Dung & Noppe C., 2006, based on technical research on traditional ceramics production conducted by ceramics engineer Pascal Léonard and Royal Museum of Mariemont curator Catherine Noppe.
• A seminar with the project’s various partners at the Vietnam National History Museum. Its objective consisted in assessing the outcome of the project’s first phase titled “Cultural Itineraries: Traditional Craft Villages” and exchanging practical domestic and international experiences on the subject.
• Training days organised in pottery villages by Pascal Léonard in April 2007. One of the aims of this undertaking was to make proposals to local partners and artisans for the development of a Red River Delta Pottery label.

rice noodles drying on frames, Minh Khai


1 Villages and other sites of interest in bold type indicate places to be visited on the itineraries of this guide.

2 Names in brackets with a date refer to quoted sources given in the bibliography at the back of the book.

3 A geographical grouping of villages specialising in the same sector, whose businesses are interconnected and within which there is a high degree of labour division (see p.36).

4 The founding legends of some of these crafts are described in detail in the featured itineraries.

5 French School of Far Eastern Studies

6 L’Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense, Ivry-sur-Seine, France.

7 (Nguyễn Văn Huy, 2006)

Table des illustrations

Titre Craftvillages in 1930 (Hà Tây Province)
Fichier image/jpeg, 477k
Titre Craf tvillages in 2006 (Hà Tây and Bắc Ninh Provinces)
Fichier image/jpeg, 539k
Légende sanding furniture, Đồng Kỵ
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
Légende rice noodles drying on frames, Minh Khai
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,1M

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